The glitz and unabashed spectacle of a big budget Broadway musical is in full display at Moulin Rouge. The show, based on the movie of the same name, is a feast for the eyes, an aural sensation that, when pulsating on all cylinders, is an astounding piece of theater.
Like the film, Moulin Rouge takes place in the Montmarte section of Paris where an American, Christian (Aaron Tveit) meets Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) and his artistic pal Santiago (Ricky Rojas). The three become fast friends as they decide to collaborate on creative pursuits. Christian reveals his adoration for the singer Santine (Karen Olivo), the headliner at the Moulin Rouge, overseen by the bombastic owner/emcee, Harold Zidler (Danny Burstein). The three compatriots decide to sneak into the luminous nightclub to set-up a clandestine meeting with the performer. After her breath-taking performance, through mistaken identity, Santine nestles up to the penniless artist, thinking he is the rich Duke (Tam Mutu) who has lascivious eyes for the entertainer and money in his pocket to save the cash-strapped club. A love triangle is thus formed with Santine and Christian attempting to hide their feelings for each other from The Duke. All the skullduggery, with the backdrop of rehearsals for a glittering production at the Moulin Rouge, ends with a show-stopping success and tragedy.
The book of the show by John Logan mirrors its source material in most of the crucial scenes. The story, as presented on stage, primarily the love affair between Santine and Christian, produces very few sparks as does the jealous rages of the Duke. The moralizing and sermonizing about the power of art, freedom, and truth also ring hollow. However, these non-musical, dance-free scenes do carry the narrative forward quickly enough until the next gorgeously impressive production number.
What sets Moulin Rouge apart from recent Broadway extravaganzas is the sheer showmanship, energy, and visual pyrotechnics that flood the stage. Scenic Designer Derek McLane has created a mesmerizing set that had audience members elbowing their way down the aisles snapping photos and selfies even before the start of the show. Restraint is not the word to be used in this production, but the embellishments and aggrandizements fully serve the needs of the musical. Lighting Designer Justin Townsend skillfully blankets scenes with a multitude of dynamic and vibrant colors that heighten the emotional impact and vivacity of the show. Peter Hylenski’s Sound Design envelopes every corner of the Al Hirschfield Theatre with an explosion of auditory delights. Catherine Zuber’s Costume Designs, especially within the Moulin Rouge setting, can be radiant.
As with the movie, the score is a hodgepodge of musical styles and genres – Pop, Broadway, New Wave, R & B – that encompass 70 songs, mostly snippets fused together to form highly enjoyable and entertaining mash-ups. Santine’s entrance on a lowering trapeze is a perfect example. She starts with Shirley Bassey’s “Diamonds Are Forever” from the James Bond movie of the same name. That morphs into “Diamonds” (Rihanna) and, finally, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Choregorapher Sonya Tayeh has produced an impressive array of vigorous dance routines – starting off with the opening high-octane booging to “Lady Marmalade” – that are full of sexual tension and a captivating sizzle. The choreography combines modern day, full-bodied high-spiritedness with robust period pieces such as the classic cancan.
The cast is stocked with seasoned Broadway actors and actresses who deliver flawless performances. Karen Olivo is feisty, independent, and vulnerable as the headliner Santine. She is an absolute dynamo in her production numbers. Aaron Tveit is more low-key in his portrayal as the somber, determined and infatuated Christian. Danny Burstein provides the most satisfying performance of the production. He is suitably over-the-top as the Emcee of the Moulin Rouge stage show, but also tough and compassionate in his role as the owner of the fabled nightclub. Tam Mutu is fittingly callous and despicable as The Duke, but not as ruthless or psychotic as portrayed in the film. Sahr Ngaujah (Toulouse-Lautrec) and Ricky Rojas (Santiago) handle their roles with confidence and passion even though their characterizations are not fully refined.
Director Alex Timbers has fashioned a crowd-pleasing spectacle full of pageantry and exhilaration. While the scenes heavy with backstory and exposition don’t always resonate with sincerity and vigor, the riveting theatrics and grandeur make up for these soft spots of the musical.
Moulin Rouge, a dazzling, lavish production that starts off the new Broadway season with unabashed radiance and brilliance.