“Moulin Rouge”, the big-budget, huge-cast, over-the-top stage version of Baz Luhrman’s 2001hit movie, is extravagant commercial entertainment more than theatre musical. Commerce pervades this ultra-jukebox spectacle. Montmartre, Paris, 1899 was never more lavish: The interior of the Hirschfeld Theatre interior is drenched in red and gold, making the set of “Natasha Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812” look like an old Five and Dime. The box seats are retrofit with huge replicas of the Moulin Rouge’s windmill and the movie’s Blue Elephant. Perched on the scenery as theatergoers enter, scantily clad ensemble members (in lots of S&M styled leather) as Belle Époque demimonde, pose sexually, gaze wantonly, beseeching silently to be Instagrammed, a practice encouraged by the show’s producers. Patrons wielding Iphones snap away. Audience becomes both paparazzi at and promoters of the show.
From this pre-show happening explodes the opening number, an exuberant, dazzling, extended mash-up of the disco favorite “Lady Marmalade” and the Can-Can performed amidst lusciously lit (by Justin Townsend) heart-shaped, multi-layered backdrops, more erotically inviting than the old-fashioned die-cut, pop-up Valentine card the set invokes. The six dozen musical numbers that follow reflect thematically, more or less, characters’ emotional states to advance plot.
The tragic heroine, Santine (Karen Olivo), the club’s headlining chanteuse, descends on a swing from the rafters singing “Diamonds Are Forever” which morphs into a medley of “Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend” “Material Grill” and “Single Lady (Put A Ring on It)". Santine’s a girl on the make. She also suffers from consumption. Her commercial fate is tied to Harold Zilder (Danny Burstein), owner of the Moulin Rouge, which, despite its opulence, teeters on the brink of financial collapse.
Enter the dissolute, dastardly Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu) singing The Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” (… “Let me introduce myself…” ). Zilder targets the Duke as patsy who will bail him out. So what if he pimps out Santine to the Duke to get what he wants? Love challenges commerce with the arrival of the wide-eyed, virginal, young songwriter Christian (Aaron Tveit) from Lima, Ohio, who breaks into "The Sound of Music” (yes, Rodger and Hammerstein). It’s love at first site for him with the worldly Santine, who quickly falls for him too. Christian is befriended by Toulouse-Lautrec (Saur Ngaujah) and his sidekick Flamingo dancer and gigolo Santiago (Ricky Rojas). The trio produces a musical starring Santine which the Duke finances. Christian and Santine conceal their love from the Duke even while Saltine becomes the Duke’s courtesan. Christian’s play-within-the-play mirrors the real life ménage a trios.
Justine Levine, who supervised music and orchestrations and arrangements, working with writer John Logan, astonishingly melds -often ingeniously, sometimes shamelessly - into two and half hours, 75 songs, some snippets, many made famous by pop divas like Whitney Houston, Beyonce, Tina Turner, Annie Lenox and Edith Piaf. (Yes, a real French torch singer. I wonder what she’d say about having her “La Vie En Rose” appropriated here.) It’s good that the songs keep on coming because the story on its own would stop the show. Santine’s consumption, evidenced by a sparkling white handkerchief stained glistening nail-polish Jungle Red (even blood blings here), comes as a shock to noone except the two men she’s sleeping with. “Moulin Rouge” aspires to serious melodrama. Even if the production is so excessive it borders on camp, there’s nothing tongue-in-cheek intended.
Suspension of disbelief is required for Santine being consumptive. The broad-shouldered and voluptuously toned Ms Olivo, who won a Tony as featured actress in the 2009 bilingual revival of “West Side Story”, is the healthiest looking specimen on Broadway. She looks fabulous even dying. So what (I guess), she sings up a storm. Mr. Tviet better known for his voice, not for his acting, sings up a storm, too. He and Ms Olivo are best in their duet of “Roxanne” made famous by Sting and The Police. Danny Burstein does Danny Burstein doing the club owner; think a stout, butch, crasser PT Barnum version of the emcee from “Cabaret”. Mr. Mutu’s Duke inexplicably disappears from the plot but at least the English actor has found life in theater after his title turn in the deadly “Dr. Zhivago”. As Toulouse, Mr. Ngaujah, who created the title role in “Fela!” way back when, corners the show’s quietest moments with a distinctive solo version of Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy”. (Why the famous ballad? Because it invokes Toulouse’s unrequited love for Santine; he fell in love with her when he rescued her from life on the streets when she was a 13-year old prostitute.)
Spectacle reigns, and not just in the fantastic scenery by Derek McLane. Costume by multiple Tony-winner Catherine Zuber isn’t just spectacular; it is spectacle in itself - an eye-popping, elegant pastiche of Folies Bergere, Ziegfeld, Mackie, and Las Vegas. Choreography by Sonya Tayeh is spectacular, too - a non-stop, breathless, dizzying array of dance and a most impressive Broadway debut for Tayeh. (Her most inventive number is Christian’s absinthe-induced nightmare that portends his doomed relationship with Santine.) Director Alex Timbers, who misfired with “Beetlejuice”, is working full cylinder in full showmanship gear. To paraphrase Ed Sullivan, “It’s a really big shew”. More apt, to quote Oscar Wilde, “Nothing succeeds like excess”.
The repetitive use of pop hits in “Moulin Rouge“ points up the old show biz maxim: if it works once, do it again. The rule gets carried right through to the finale - an even more exuberant but shorter, repeat version of the opening number, “Lady Marmalade”. The hand-clapping audience, on its feet, chants in American phonetic the refrain “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir”. Burstein's Zyler shoots sparkling confetti into the air from the end of his emcee’s walking stick. The theatre goes crazy. An insert in the Playbill instructs that photos are permitted during the encore. Iphones are it galore. Bling sells.
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