The Broadway exclamation point — once a marquee staple, later an overused joke — makes a roaring comeback with “Moulin Rouge!” This new musical, based on the Baz Luhrmann movie set in and around the fabled Parisian nightclub of the title, certainly earns its breathless punctuation mark. How eager is this show to dazzle and daze us into submission? Well, consider that the confetti gun, usually used to send the audience home in a festive mood, comes out near the top of the first act, spraying silver and gold paper out into the audience. (Fear not, if you find yourself disappointingly unbedazzled: It’s brought out later for an encore.)
Subtle “Moulin Rouge!” most definitely is not. And why would it be? The movie on which it is closely based was a baroque roller coaster of kitsch, driven by Luhrmann’s vertiginous camerawork, ornate production design and, perhaps above all, a sense-scrambling soundtrack stringing together dozens of hit contemporary pop: a pre-streaming Spotify playlist of endorphin-boosting songs. All this extravagant stylishness served to embroider, or perhaps disguise, the slimness of a rather hackneyed storyline, about the doomed romance between a besotted young writer and a courtesan with a silver tongue, a heart of a more precious metal (no prizes for guessing which) and a consumptive cough. Luhrmann turned the film version of “Moulin Rouge!” into a triumph of exuberant style over slender substance.
The Broadway version, directed by Alex Timbers and with a book by John Logan (a Tony winner for “Red”), deftly performs the same feat of legerdemain. Indeed the production doesn’t just mimic the movie’s hyperactively gaudy style; it dials up the volume exponentially, primarily by updating and supersizing the soundtrack to include selections from a staggering 70 songs. “Moulin Rouge!” is a jukebox musical on steroids, the virtual apotheosis of the form.
On that front, there’s something here for everyone. Beyoncé? Check: “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” Britney? Yep: “Toxic.” Adele? Natch: “Rolling in the Deep.” Let’s not forget Katy Perry (“Firework”) and Whitney (“I Will Always Love You”) and Sia (“Chandelier”) and Pink (“Raise Your Glass”) and Lorde (“Royals”) and Madonna (“Material Girl,” but not the movie’s extended “Like a Virgin;” perhaps today that’s too vieux jeu?) and of course Lady Gaga (“Bad Romance”).
For rockers there’s a smidgen or two of the Rolling Stones, a little of the Police, and some U2, too. For the ’80s-obsessed, the playlist includes such one-off hits as “Take On Me,” “Tainted Love,” “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This” and “You Spin Me Round.” And, tossing a faded flower to the forlorn Broadway traditionalists in the audience, who may find themselves wanting to shout, “Alexa, please stop!,” the show does include the title song from “The Sound of Music,” which figured playfully in the plot of the movie.
In fact, while “Moulin Rouge!” prances dutifully through the convolutions of its thin ribbon of a storyline — with Aaron Tveit playing the lovestruck young swain Christian and Karen Olivo in the role of the silken seductress, Satine — it’s hard not to feel that the onslaught of musical mashups and cascading parade of song samples aren’t just supplying heady and often delightful diversions: They are the sum and substance of the musical. Plot, dialogue, character are not just incidental: They’re virtually relegated to the position of props.
The shining star of the show is the pop song itself — pop as a form of powerful if little-respected contemporary art.
If the songs weren’t busy upstaging the characters, the sets and costumes might be. Working closely from the movie’s rapturous aesthetic, set designer Derek McLane creates a vision of a fairy-tale Paris, all garrets and moonlight, that effectively re-creates that of the movie, right down to Satine’s exotic elephant-shaped boudoir, with its interior of heart-shaped candy box prosceniums. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are likewise an eyeful of saturated colors, swirling skirts and flesh-baring corsets and hose, an homage to the Paris of the 19th-century demimonde of legend. (Both McLane and Zuber draw on the work of Catherine Martin, who designed both the sets and costumes for the movie.)
The resulting show is all flash, splash and megawatt musical numbers, nimbly if not entirely masking a fairly hollow and certainly hoary emotional core.
Logan has done some minor tinkering to expand the narrative and add a layer of rather synthetic humanity to the baldly archetypal characters. Instead of a plot revolving around putting on a legitimate stage show that would turn the Moulin Rouge into a respectable theater, the Broadway version concentrates on the nightclub itself, run by the impresario Harold Zidler (an effervescent Danny Burstein), which is on the verge of bankruptcy. Only if Satine can seduce the Duke of Monroth (an aptly predatory Tam Mutu) into investing in the club can its closing be forestalled.
But Harold has not factored in the arrival — from Ohio as opposed to England, in another minor switch — of the dashing young Christian, played by Tveit with a gleaming if rather bland ardor. Instantly bewitched when he sees Satine, whom Olivo infuses with a perfumed blend of sultriness and spine, perform her signature number, he is recruited by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (soberly played by Sahr Ngaujah without the goofy accent of the movie) and his random fellow bohemian, Santiago (Ricky Rojas), a tango dancer and gigolo, to write songs for a show that, they hope, will turn around the Moulin Rouge’s fading fortunes.
The dialogue is not of a high order; it might have been ripped from any old, um, bad romance. “Listen to your heart, Satine. Let me write a thousand love songs for you,” pants Christian. “Christian, I can’t go back to the streets,” replies Satine. Christian: “Then come with me to the stars.”
Misty-eyed yet? Fortunately, like the movie, “Moulin Rouge!” continually winks at its own overheated romanticism. That less-than-inspired exchange leads directly into a duet in which Christian and Satine toss back and forth endless snippets of familiar love songs, as if thrusting and parrying with swords of clichéd verbiage: “Love will lift us up where we belong,” Christian croons, while Satine wails, “What’s love got to do with it?”
Pop songs have been mining romantic banalities for their undeniable emotional appeal ever since the form was invented. By doubling down, or make that tripling down, on the infectious appeal of soppy, catchy love songs from across the stylistic spectrum, “Moulin Rouge!” manages the nifty trick of transforming what many would consider musical dross into something close to theatrical gold.
“Moulin Rouge!” opened at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on Thurs., July 25, 2019.
Producers: Carmen Pavlovic, Gerry Ryan, Global Creatures, Bill Damaschke, Aaron Lustbader, Hunter Arnold, Darren Bagert, Erica Lynn Schwartz/Matt Picheny/Stephanie Rosenberg, Adam Blanshay Productions/Nicolas & Charles Talar, Iris Smith, Aleri Entertainment, CJ ENM, Sophie Qi/Harmonia Holdings, Baz & Co, AF Creative Media International Theatre Fund, Endeavor Content, Tom & Pam Faludy, Gilad-Rogowsky/InStone Productions, John Gore Organization, MEHR-BB Entertainment GmbH,Spencer Ross, Nederlander Presentations/IPN, Eric Falkenstein/Suzanne Grant, Jennifer Fischer, Peter May/Sandy Robertson, Triptyk Studios, Carl Daikeler/Sandi Moran, DeSantis-Baugh Productions, Red Mountain Theare Company/42nd.club, Candy Spelling/Tulchin Bartner, Roy Furman and Jujamcyn Theaters; By special arrangement with Buena Vista Theatrical.
Creative: Book by John Logan; Based on the 2001 Motion Picture by Twentieth Century Fox; Based on the 2001 Twentieth Century Fox Motion Picture written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce; Music orchestrated by Justin Levine; Directed by Alex Timbers; Choreographed by Sonya Tayeh; Scenic Design by Derek McLane; Costume Design by Catherine Zuber; Lighting Design by Justin Townsend; Sound Design by Peter Hylenski.
Cast: Karen Olivo, Aaron Tveit, Danny Burstein, Robyn Hurder, Tam Mutu, Sahr Ngaujah, Ricky Rojas, 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, Benjamin Rivera.