Moulin Rouge!, the latest blockbuster from Aussie production company Global Creatures, rocketed onto the diamond-encrusted stage of Broadway’s Al Hirschfield Theatre with all the hallmarks of a crowd-pleasing and very palpable hit. With an expanded, every-one-a-winner soundtrack, a first-rate, hard-working cast and a staging that looks a million dollars and counting, it takes feelgood to a whole new level in a clear case of “Gitchie, gitchie, ya-ya!” all round.
Jacqueline B. Arnold as La Chocolat, Robyn Hurder as Nini, Holly James as Arabia and Jeigh Madjus as Baby Doll. All photos © Matthew Murphy
Nominated for eight Academy Awards – including Best Picture and Best Actress for Nicole Kidman – and winning two: for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design, Baz Luhrmann’s 2001, high-octane jukebox movie of Belle Époque bohemian life was the first musical nominated for Best Picture in 10 years. Given the film’s cult status, it’s no mean feat to pull off a stage version, but here it succeeds thanks to a bold sweep of the last 20 years of popular music giving the score a more contemporary feel and a fresh book, courtesy of John Logan, that puts a little more flesh on the bones of its somewhat undernourished characters.
Except for a tweak here and there, the plot is largely as was. Idealistic young composer Christian (Ewan McGregor in the film, here played by the charming Aaron Tveit as a wide-eyed American from Ohio) arrives in 1899 Paris where he falls in with “the rats of the Latin Quarter”, a pair of left bank, left-wing artists by the name of Toulouse-Lautrec (the highly watchable Sahr Ngaujah) and Santiago (an energetic Ricky Rojas in a less clearly defined role).
Sahr Ngaujah as Toulouse-Lautrec, Aaron Tveit as Christian and Ricky Rojas as Santiago
Taking Christian along to the notorious Moulin Rouge, they introduce him to Satine (Karen Olivo, utterly electric throughout), an ambitious courtesan and the club’s star turn, in the hope that she will pitch their new show to venal manager Harold Zidler (Danny Burstein walking a fine line between exploiter and lovable rogue). The two fall instantly in love, but unfortunately Zidler has promised Satine to the wicked Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu, sadly not a patch on the film’s creepy Richard Roxburgh). The Duke agrees to bankroll the new show as long as he gets to ‘own’ Satine. Keeping the lovers’ affair secret during rehearsals occupies a great deal of the second half before Satine, now diagnosed with a fatal dose of consumption, chooses Christian over the Duke and expires in his arms.
There are some judicious changes, and a few perhaps less so. In the film, Caroline O’Connor playing the club’s second star Nini, betrays Satine and Christian to the Duke. Here, the excellent (if underutilised) Robyn Hurder merely confesses her jealousy to Satine but does nothing to act on it – they are, after all, “sisters” in adversity. In fact, the whole show takes a cue from the “soul sister” lyric of the hit opening number Lady Marmalade. Satine’s motivation to go with the Duke now becomes more supportively altruistic: she simply wants to save the other girls from ending up back on the streets.
Danny Burstein as Harold Zidler
On the dramatically weaker side, the Duke, who in the film controversially rapes Satine, now merely storms out, while Santiago and Nini’s romance – heavily flagged up at first – goes nowhere. Toulouse-Lautrec, however, gets a richer backstory and his unrequited love for Satine adds a layer of pathos that pays off handsomely towards the end. The plot is still pretty thin – basically a hotchpotch of Parisian boho clichés – but thanks to a great deal of fine acting and director Alex Timbers’ canny sense of when to give things some emotional air, the denouement lands a surprisingly powerful blow.
Musically too the show delivers an enormous charge thanks to Peter Hylenski’s gloriously punchy sound design, which ensures that the music pumps long and loud while never losing a lyric. And then there’s that eclectic, expanded song list. If you thought the film was clever with its sly pop references and nimble-footed mashups, double it here – no, quadruple it. Talking Heads’ Burning Down the House morphs into Bowie’s Let’s Dance; Fun’s We are Young slips seamlessly into Bolan’s Children of the Revolution; in rapid fire dialogue, The Hills are Alive runs into Never Gonna Give you Up and Every Breath you Take; and to cap it all, Christian’s Act I finale catalogue of love songs collides with Satine’s counter-list of anti-love anthems in a dazzling montage containing something like 70 musical references (all of which had to be independently cleared for rights!).
The company of Moulin Rouge!
With the exception of Zidler and the Duke’s Like a Virgin and Satine and Zidler’s The Show Must Go On (victim of a Bohemian Rhapsody competing rights issue), most of the film’s big hitters are present and correct –Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend, Material Girl, Elton John’s Your Song etc – but the net has been cast impressively wide for new stuff and the show now contains The Rolling Stones (Sympathy for the Devil), Katie Perry (Firework) and Lady Gaga (a sizzling take on Bad Romance that opens the second half with a bang).
Derek McLane’s sumptuous set expands to fill a fair proportion of the auditorium, including cabaret-style tables for a lucky few at the very front. Paying homage to the film’s iconic red and gold motif, it’s full of alluring visuals, from the myriad chandeliers (I could count 12 from where I was sitting) to the working windmill on the balcony. Catherine Zuber’s chic, period-cum-contemporary costumes and Justin Townsend’s beautifully detailed lighting – including many ingeniously illuminated set pieces – create a compelling blend of sexy and seedy, timely and timeless.
Karen Olivo as Satine and Aaron Tveit as Christian
Timbers’ smooth, well-paced direction is of the best kind: it doesn’t get in the way and never labours a point. He’s ably supported by Sonya Tayeh’s scorching choreography that veers from the dynamic to the erotic by way of the borderline pornographic. Along with Hurder, Bahiyah Hibah, Holly James and Jeigh Madjus are especially ‘hot’ in the various club routines, but all pull their weight from the louche showgirls to the prowling stage-door Johnnies. A healthy dose of gender fluidity seems satisfyingly reflective of society’s current state of progress.
As for the cast, Tveit is equally adept at portraying Christian’s goofy naivety, his maturing jealousy and his righteous anger. Vocally he’s a chameleon, able to sweetly inhabit Walk the Moon’s Shut Up and Dance while kicking Adele’s Rolling in the Deep into touch. Olivo makes a far more earthy, relatable Satine than Kidman’s pallid sylph, plus she possesses a twenty-carat diamond voice that really gets under the skin of a song like Firework. Burstein too is a class act, threateningly manipulative as he sex trafficks his way through his chorus line, yet equally dangerous as the charmer you know you shouldn’t trust. Plus, he can sing! Along with Tveit and Olivo he adeptly tips the show-within-a-show from melodramatic farce into touching tragedy. With Ngaujah, Rojas and Hurder never less than engaging and, at one point, a whole chorus of Madonnas, what have you got to lose?
Ricky Rojas as Santiago and Robyn Hurder as Nini
With its slogan of “truth, beauty, freedom and love”, Moulin Rouge! is a show that knows what it is, understands what it has to do, and does it with heart, sincerity and style. If you’re looking for a pumping night out in New York, grab a ticket while you can can can!
Moulin Rouge! is at the Al Hirschfield Theatre, Broadway