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Theatre in Review: Moulin Rouge! (Al Hirschfeld Theatre)

Jacqueline B. Arnold, Robyn Hurder, Holly James, Jeigh Madjus. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

It was a strange experience to see Moulin Rouge! on the day of Hal Prince's passing. As the world knows, Prince and his collaborators turned the Broadway musical upside down, teaching it to investigate morals, manners, politics, and the darkest corners of the human heart. Under his tutelage, songs became more pointed, production designs made strong statements, and every aspect of a show contributed to the overall theme -- or else. Musical theatre had gone through many changes before he arrived on the scene, but nobody did more to push the form in a more intellectual direction.

And then there is Moulin Rouge!, which aims to seduce with a flourish of ruffled skirts, a rush of confetti, and a hit parade of pop tunes siphoned off an eclectic Spotify playlist. Spectacle is everything here: Singers fly in on trapezes; lovers clutch in overdecorated boudoirs and seedy garrets or whirl each other around a miniature Eiffel Tower; the chic and wealthy parade their finery down the Boulevard Beaumarchais; a fatalistic tango is performed en masse in shafts of stark white light. We are in Paris, on the eve of the twentieth century, but the musical voice is thoroughly of this moment, including hits associated with Beyoncé, Rihanna, Sia, and Britney (and, while we're at it, Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe, and Sting). Despite the lushly appointed environment, the characters tout "bohemian values." One of them even announces: "We're not just putting on a show; we're creating a revolution."

And yet, watching the whole gaudy collection of lightbulb-covered windmills and chorus girls framed in lace Valentine hearts and electric signs spelling out "L'Amour"-- not to mention the sword swallowers and aerial strap performers and pyro shooting up from the stage deck -- it's hard to duck the feeling that Montmartre, as represented here, is really an adjunct of 42nd Street, and the so-called revolution is a restoration of old-time Broadway aesthetics. Glittering and indefatigable, Moulin Rouge! is strictly in the tradition of Billy Rose and Michael Todd, mid-twentieth-century specialists in tired-businessman entertainments like Star and Garter, Peep Show, and Padlocks of 1927. For all its technical expertise and contemporary pop sounds, Broadway's newest musical is more retro than any revival of No, No, Nanette.

Whether this steady infusion of sequins is your idea of entertainment is strictly up to you. Moulin Rouge! is, of course, based on Baz Luhrmann's 2001 film, a romantic fantasy set in a hermetically sealed world constructed out of bits of vintage Hollywood movies, Puccini-era opera, and nineteenth-century stage melodrama, loaded with hit tunes and decorated with outrageously grand scenery and costumes. It's an elaborately false creation, a vision of life viewed from inside a giant snow globe. It is credited with reviving the movie musical but, from the vantage point of today, its frantic editing and over-the-top staging -- it sometimes plays like a live-action Warner Brothers cartoon -- can induce fatigue. It may be the first film to need a dose of Ritalin.

On Broadway, Moulin Rouge! is an equally hard-sell proposition, burying the story's more poignant aspects under layers of glitz and belting. The plot hangs on a triangle that was hoary even in the lilac-scented days of operetta: Its participants are Christian, who has fled his "suffocating life" in America to be an artist; Satine, Montmartre's reigning diva and a golden-hearted working girl since her teen years; and the Duke of Monroth, an elegant brute who buys and sells everything, including his lovers. The nightclub known as the Moulin Rouge -- which, we are told with surprising earnestness, provides a home for the misfits of this world -- is on the edge of ruin, so the Duke, looking to buy his way into Satine's bed, is conned into financing a new spectacle, a potboiler - starring Satine, with songs by Christian -- that recaps the plot of the show we're seeing. It's an unsustainable situation -- what with Satine and Christian constantly sneaking off for "rehearsals -- and it isn't helped by the Duke's plan to install Satine in Gigi-style splendor, far away from Montmartre, or by those pesky spots of blood that Satine keeps coughing up.

In order to appreciate this colorful nonsense, you have to put your brain on pause. It will enjoy a good rest while Christian and the others mouth platitudes about "truth, beauty, freedom, and love" -- all of which are hard to perceive while scantily clad chorines are grinding away, Minsky's-style, to "Lady Marmalade" -- or while Christian and Satine are busily ticking off the hits in a medley that includes -- but isn't limited to --"Don't Speak," "Everlasting Love," "What's Love Got to Do With It," "Can't Help Falling in Love," "Up Where We Belong," "Heroes," and "Your Song." This gets a huge hand, while doing nothing to convince us that these two characters belong together; it's romance as an aerobic display of singing and dancing skill.

The trick to Moulin Rouge! is the way it trades in second-hand notions meant to provide the thinnest of excuses for music, dance, and spectacle. The characters aren't even substantial for outlines -- they are, essentially, boy, girl, and villain; once this is established, you can relax and listen to the tunes. John Logan's book is generally literate if sometimes prone to indulge in the film's penchant for well-burnished clichés. As Christian informs us, "This is a story about love ... About passionate love and desperate love and foolish love and the kind of love you never forget and that one enchanted evening where your eyes meet across a crowded room." He forgets to mention that love makes the world go 'round, but I guess you can't have everything.

The book bogs down in the latter part of Act II, when melodrama takes over: This includes bits like the Duke, metaphorically twirling his mustache, saying things like, "Never forget, I own your little show --and I own her --and every one of you!" But on its own floor-show terms, Moulin Rouge! unquestionably delivers. In addition to the scenic wonders mentioned above, Derek McLane supplies a variety of Paris skylines stretching into infinity; slate-gray Montmartre streetscapes; a watercolor view, in a gilded frame, of a posh boulevard; a curved red electric sign spelling out the show's title; and stunning drops channeling the works of Toulouse-Lautrec. Even the design's occasionally silly aspects -- Christian starves in a garret more spacious than anything on the upper floors of the Carnegie Tower -- are beguiling. Justin Townsend's lighting ranges from rainbow-hued ballyhoos to stunningly simple and dramatic looks; the tango sequence, featuring rows of upstage striplights, is brilliantly done. Catherine Zuber has provided closetfuls of bustiers, headdresses, ruffled skirts, short shorts, and garter belts, all of them cut for maximum eroticism. Peter Hylenski's sound design is one of the best to be heard on Broadway at the moment, punchy yet thoroughly intelligible.

The performers' commitment to these tinseled proceedings never wavers. Karen Olivo is the silkiest possible Satine, with an effortless command of the stage from the moment she is lowered in, singing "Diamonds Are Forever." She dances with equal authority and shows a knack for farce in a double entendre-loaded encounter, in her boudoir, with Christian, whom she has mistaken for the Duke. In one respect, her unrivaled vitality proves undermining: Allegedly fading away from consumption, her Satine appears to be in the rudest of health; nevertheless, this is an impressive display of musical theatre technique. Saddled with a character that Logan forgot to write, Aaron Tveit leans hard on his personal magnetism, creating a likable character against the odds. He is especially impressive when belting "Roxanne," the torch song associated with Sting. (Of course, Christian is supposed to be in agony over Satine's affair with the Duke, so who is Roxanne and why is he singing about her? If you keep asking questions like these, you're not going to have much fun at Moulin Rouge!)

Also: Danny Burstein, made up to look like a cross between a circus ringmaster and a Toby jug, is a fine master of ceremonies -- here given a gay twist absent from the film -- who serves as Satine's prime minister and chief adviser. Sahr Ngaujah is a slightly odd choice to play Toulouse-Lautrec, who carries a torch for Satine, yet remains silent and ashamed about his "misshapen" body; the actor looks fit as a fiddle, so it's hard to know what he is talking about. He also damages "Nature Boy," one of the score's rare moments of quiet reflection, with overemoting. Tam Mutu snarls effectively as the Duke and offers a lively version of the Rihanna hit "The Only Girl in the World." As other denizens of the Moulin Rouge Ricky Rojas and Robyn Hurder make fine tango partners; they also preside over an electric routine set to Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance." (In the film, Hurder's character, Nini, is Satine's enemy; here, despite her envy of Satine, she warns her about the Duke's homicidal way with his exes. "We're sisters," she says, thus establishing the birth of the #MeToo era in 1899 Paris.)

Except for a ludicrous absinthe-themed production number, which includes Christian's drunken fantasy of Satine as something like Tinker Bell, Sonya Tayeh's dances deliver the promised sex and sizzle, aided by dancers loaded with talent and personality. Alex Timbers, who has great showman instincts, pulls one wonder after another out of his well-stocked magician's hat. Even if Moulin Rouge! is a bit of a con job, it doesn't stint. It's quite possible to leave the theatre dissatisfied yet feeling that you've seen quite a show.

Indeed, Moulin Rouge! has burst out of the gate like a thoroughbred, earning big paydays from the get-go. Audiences wanting nothing more than big scenery, athletic dances, and songs they already love are likely to have a good time. (I predict that it will quickly become a top attraction for English-challenged international tourists: The plot is simplicity itself, especially for those who know the film, and who doesn't love a Lady Gaga number?) There's no doubt that Moulin Rouge!, a compendium of old-time Broadway thrills given a contemporary twist, gives the audience everything and then some -- except a reason to care. --David Barbour

(5 August 2019)

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