The Review: Broadway’s Moulin Rouge! – The Musical
Truth. Beauty. Freedom. And above all things, Love. That’s what is splashed before our hungry eyes and ears at the Moulin Rouge! – The Musical decadently and gorgeously mashing together with high-wired spectacular spectacular-ness at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on Broadway. “Love is like oxygen“, they preach to us, and I was breathless as I took in the wonder. I must admit that when I saw the new musical during the hugely successful out of town tryout in Boston, I needed it to be grand, most definitively because ever since I first saw its divineness at the Ziegfeld Theatre (I think) in New York City back in 2001, I dreamed of the day it would reappear recreated live and on stage. I knew in my heart of hearts that it seemed destined to be a splashy Broadway musical, just as much as Nicole Kidman’s beautiful courtesan, Satine was wanted to be a true actress, and equally destined to fall hopelessly and forever in love with Ewan McGregor’s beautiful bohemian poet, Christian (check out those two talking about the movie here). It was written in the sparkling stars up above, not just by Baz Luhrmann (Broadway’s La Bohème, Sydney’s Strictly Ballroom) and Craig Pearce in the movie’s script for the Twentieth Century Fox film that Luhrmann also directed, but for all of us hopeless romantics and love struck dreamers. Luckily for us, that extravaganza has finally found its way onto the Broadway stage in the most magnificently spectacular kind of way, mainly because of the adaptation book by John Logan (Tony winner for the Broadway play, Red). He has delicately found the perfect take and the precious antidote for the story, and crafted something better, deeper, darker, and surprisingly joyful, with a sharp dash of silliness to give us all a bit of a wise ass jolt.
By now, anyone who is as excited as I was to see this production has probably seen the pictures of the gloriously designed opening set by the wildly talented Derek McLane (Broadway’s Burn This). It’s highly stylized, deeply red and dramatic, totally worthy of all the Instagram posting (#moulinrougebroadway) taken before the actual musical parade begins. The aisles are crowded with delighted fans, snapping and pointing with delight. The energy is intoxicating and enthralling as we get our first glimpse at the black clad dancers, dressed to entice and seduce, courtesy of the masterful work of Catherine Zuber (Broadway’s My Fair Lady). They slink and strut their erotic way around the dark corners of the glorious stage like burlesque alley cats in heat, posing and flaunting their perfectly corseted curves and torsos under the watchful eyes of the elephant and iconic windmill. It’s quiet and sneaky, and decidedly wicked. Moulin Rouge! is doing exactly what it needs to do, heighten and prepare our senses for the feast that we are about to be served.
And indulgent it is. Within this new musical, directed dynamically and deliciously by Alex Timbers (Broadway’s Beetlejuice), the team has done the impossible. They have managed, using the expertise of music supervisor, co-orchestrator, co-arranger and additional lyrics of Justin Levine (Delacorte’s A Midsummer Night’s…), coupled with the high and darkly fascinating energy of the original score, to begin the show not as expected, but in the way a well constructed stage musical should. The greet us with the pop classic that is on everyone’s lips from the beginning, performed with power and agility by Jacqueline B. Arnold (Broadway’s Priscilla…) as La Chocolat, Robyn Hurder (Encores’ A Chorus Line) as Nini, Holly James (Broadway’s American Psycho) as Arabia and Jeigh Madjus (Public’s Here Lies Love) as Baby Doll, and then dive into new and delicious territories. Those first few moments throw us off scent by telling us almost everything we need to know about this new creation and their plan without giving anything away. This is not a carbon copy of the masterful film (like the disappointing Pretty Woman), but an ever expanding reimagining with so many new musical tidbits to devour. The additions are seamless and perfectly mixed, although sometimes the quick one line lyric feeds feel forced than playful, taking us out of the emotionality of the moment with a grin and a wink. It lightens the musical rather then keeps it dark and moody. They have reorganized the film into a meal that is superior to any other blueprint special that someone lesser could have created by merely copying the film scene by scene. The brilliance lies is in the way they use the movie and its now classic borrowed songs as a foundational guiding hand, giving the musical the solid structure required, rather than look at the film-to-stage musical as a precious diamond that had to be recreated and cut in the exact same form. We see that within almost every iconic moment; we wait with anticipation for the thing we know, only to be surprised by the added twist and the turning of the plate. We are never let down, as no favorite morsel or taste has been taken away, but it is served up in a uniquely aggressive and sumptuous manner with a few different spices and flavors added to enhance and entertain.
The impresario, Zidler, perfectly crafted by the expert Danny Burstein (Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof) invites all of us chickens into his world with a wicked grin. He’s the equivalent of Cabaret‘s Emcee, wilkommen-ing us into his decadent Kit Kat Klub, with his own brand of Sally Bowles and the Cabaret girls. The sparkling diamond, Satine, gorgeously and seductively portrayed by the powerful Karen Olivo (Broadway’s West Side Story) enters in exactly the manner we had dreamed of, but quickly takes us down a different rare-cut route almost immediately. She gives us all that we could ever want from her and shakes us up with her heartfelt wreaking ball of a performance. “Cause baby you’re a firework“, painting a solid picture of love and desire, without ever loosing the silly fun that Kidman infused within Satine. Especially when she came face to face with the love of a many splendored things, the handsome Aaron Tveit (Broadway’s Next to Normal) as our lovestruck bohemian poet, Christian. Together they collide with the clouds adding an element of spark and a dash of sweetness within the newly created mashed up melodies that are playful even when somewhat distracting from the heart. Olivo is impressively strong in the role, finding the delicate high-wired act of desire, humor, passion, greed, survivalist skills, and, above all else, the name of love.
Tveit delivers the leading man vibe with a bright white toothed grin and a strong confident strut, It’s a bit off putting at times, that smile, but his voice and presence fills the space and his dashing looks make him pretty irresistible to the eyes. In many ways this works against him in the first half, as he never really finds that delicate edge of insecurity and wide eyed awe in his opening monologues that made McGregor so perfect in the role. McGregor looked at Kidman’s Satine in a way we all have at one point of our life when we have gazed at our dream lover; with a hopeless desire and an overwhelming mixture of romantic adoration like we have won the lottery and the stuttering fear of possible heartbreak to come. Unfortunately with Tveit, we never feel the adrenaline of shock or helpless surprise when this glorious creature casts her eyes on him. It feels like his body and smile are telling us that, “yes, of course”. We never believe for a second that he sees Satine is a woman “out of my league“, but his voice is glorious, never faltering, soaring up into the heavens with ever note especially as we get into the tortured heartbreak of Act Two.
The glorious Toulouise-Lautrec, played majestically by the soulful Sahr Ngaujah (Public’s Mlima’s Tale) guides Christian and his fellow Bohemian, the magnetic Argentinian, Santiago, portrayed perfectly by the delicious Ricky Rojas (Broadway’s Burn the Floor) deep into the dark corners of the Moulin Rouge!. Ngaujah’s Lautrec is filled to the brim with a joy and a dark sadness that brings tears to my eyes with his delicate classic song pulled from the opening of the film and placed somewhere in the middle of Act One. Perfectly placed with artistic precision, his storytelling is a quick descent into his desirous pain, and expertly keeps us blind-sighted and intrigued, reminding us that every new and old musical moment and lyric will sneak in and surprise, while never disappointing us with an omission or neglect.
Then there is the Duke, aggressively played by the dashing and impressive Tam Mutu (Broadway’s Doctor Zhivago). This is most definitely not the same character from the film as this is a man to be reckoned with and feared. He’s the sexually enticing bad boy; handsome, powerful, and very rich, with an edge that makes you tingle while also putting you on your guard. He’s no one’s buffoon, as he was played most hilariously by the gifted Richard Roxburgh in the film, but a true counterpart and competitor for love and control, and he does not take losing well. He’s physically aggressive and dangerous, as it is reflected within each new muscular songs that is deemed appropriate for such a man to sing. Strong and persistent, his sharp-edged musical chops demand our attention, giving Christian a true adversary and opponent for Satine’s desire. Nina, beautifully created by the magnificent Robyn Hurder (Broadway’s Nice Work…), Satine’s spotlight rival at the Moulin Rouge! has it right when she warns her own competition that this man is not to be played with. Satine needs to watch herself in a way that Kidman’s leading lady didn’t have to.
I’m not going to say too much more about the musical details, because part of the joy and thrill of this delicious feast is the surprise and fun edginess of the journey. It truly is remarkable that the solid work of the whole creative team, including sound design by Peter Hylenski (Broadway’s Frozen), music producer, Matt Stine (Barrow Street’s Sweeney Todd); music director, Cian McCarthy (Broadway’s Book of Mormon); music coordinator, Michael Aarons (Broadway’s Be More Chill), has mashed together this tale with such surprising force, frivolity, and passion. It’s a bit more decadent and charged than the movie while never losing its sly fun game. Gone are the object distortions of the solid camera work by the brilliant cinematographer Donald McAlpine (Baz’s “Romeo + Juliet“). In its place, the team has given us a sinister black veil and a heightened sexual tension in the song and dance that will make you lean forward and almost fall head first into the sexuality and pure fun of the Moulin Rouge!
The movie was almost virginal in that way, delighting in the romantic tendencies of the Bohemians, fast forwarding through the theatrics with glee at times with the iconic neon L’Amour hanging over the proceedings. Luckily that L’Amour still shines its hopeful warning light over this staging. Kidman’s Satine always managed to avoid the Duke’s advances, where inside this Moulin Rouge!, that device has given way to something more sexually desirous and insidious. Olivo gives in to the demon in a way that Kidman couldn’t. Wrapped in the deeply arresting and spot on perfection of Broadway’s lighting master, Justin Townsend (Broadway’s The Little Foxes), the gorgeous creatures of the night slide together with erotic delight, straddling each other outside and in the beautifully choreography of the impressive Sonya Tayeh (Ars Nova’s The Lucky Ones). Tayeh strips everyone down to their most carnivorous of selves and gives us an edge of danger and decadence, particularly in the toxic bad romance opener of Act 2, one of the purest magical highlights of this new configuration. The ensemble is dynamic and perfection, killing each movement with grace and sexual preciseness, thanks to Jacqueline B. Arnold, Olutayo Bosede, Kyle Brown, Sam J. Cahn, Max Clayton, Aaron C. Finley, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Bahiyah Hibah, Ericka Hunter, Holly James, Reed Luplau, Jeigh Madjus, Morgan Marcell, Brandt Martinez, Jodi McFadden, Kevyn Morrow, Fred Odgaard, Khori Michelle Petinaud, and Benjamin Rivera.
Coming nearly at the end of this almost three-hour extravaganza, the Argentinian tango finally slides its way onto that stage. It was what I was holding my breath for, even though I had already seen the show in Boston and knew its placement. Like many moments throughout, one couldn’t help but wonder if this or that song had been dropped and replaced (I only consciously caught one omission, and one I was glad to see gone), but luckily that is not the case with Roxanne. She glides forward with a provocative rhythm and a sharp step, relieving me of my tension and thrilling my senses with its inventive and impressive staging. Admittedly, there is disappointment that the heart pounding duet (see the film version here) became a much less dynamic solo for Tveit’s Christian to sing single handedly. The growling Rojas has just the right roughness to make it roar, but he was cast backwards into the singular role of the skilled sly dancer with the equally magnificent Hurder at his side. It was one of the only pure and solid disappointments in an otherwise flawless staging.
The staged climax lacks cohesion when compared to the film, and the final deadly blow happens far too fast and without flair, giving us little to get teary-eyed about but the main course is as strong and sensual as you could have hoped for. So many added musical gems delight and amaze with their sparkle and slyness. So hurry up, you delightful and decadent chickens, and get your tickets to Broadway’s newest sensation, before the gloriousness of this ridiculously fun and wise Moulin Rouge! is eaten all up by the masses starved for a piece of its dark deliciousness.