Truth. Beauty. Freedom. And above all things, Love. That’s what it’s all about at the Moulin Rouge! – The Musical. Love is like oxygen. And inside the Emerson Colonial Theatre in Boston, I was breathless. I originally had tickets for the first weekend of July, but due to a mishap, our tickets were shifted to the first weekend of August, so there we were, senses heightened by our delayed gratification. I must admit that I needed this to be good. Ever since I first saw the ‘spectacular spectacular‘ so many years ago 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 that it had to come as it seemed destined to be, just as much as Nicole Kidman’s beautiful courtesan, Satine was destined to fall hopelessly and forever in love with Ewan McGregor’s glorious bohemian poet, Christian (check out those two talking about the movie here). It was written in the stars, not just by Baz Luhrmann (Broadway’s La Bohème, Sydney’s stage adaptation of 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. Luckily for us, that divine decadent extravaganza has found its way, on to the stage most magnificently, mainly because of the adaptation book by John Logan (Tony winner for Red). He has found a way to take the perfect and precious, and make it better, deeper, darker, and surprising. Christian’s opening monologue needs some nervous excitement added and some McGregor charm mixed in, but I don’t want to quibble, as the overall thrill arrives totally intact giving us a ‘spectacular spectacular‘ if there ever was one.
By now, anyone who was (and is) as excited as I to see this production having its pre-Broadway tryout in Boston, has probably seen the pictures of the gloriously designed opening set by the uber-talented Derek McLane (Broadway’s The Price). It’s highly stylized and dramatic, worthy of all the Instagram posting (#moulinrougebroadway) and snapshots taken before the actual show begins. The black clad dancers, courtesy of the masterful work of Catherine Zuber (Broadway’s My Fair Lady), slink and strut their way like cats in heat around the red lit dark corners under the elephant and iconic windmill. It’s quiet and sneaky, and decidedly wicked with deeply arresting lighting by the Broadway master, Justin Townsend (Broadway’s The Little Foxes). Moulin Rouge! is doing exactly what it needed to do, heighten our senses and prepare ourselves for the feast that we are about to be served and indulge in.
And indulgent it is, within this new musical, directed dynamically and deliciously by Alex Timbers (John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City), 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, the show begins, not as expected, but in the way a well constructed musical for the stage should. It tells us almost everything we need to know about this creation. This is not going to be a carbon copy of the masterful film, but a reimagining, and with far too many new musical tidbits to relate. The additions are seamless and perfectly mixed, reorganizing the movie into a meal that is far superior to any blueprint special that someone could have merely copied from the film. The brilliance is in the way they used the movie as a guiding hand, rather than a precious diamond that had to be recreated and cut exactly. We see that within almost every iconic moment; we wait with anticipation for the thing we know, only to be surprised by the 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.
The impresario, Zidler, perfectly crafted by the expert Danny Burstein (Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof) leads us in, surrounding us with all that we could have hoped for. He’s the equivalent of Cabaret‘s Emcee, welcoming us into his decadent Kit Kat girlie Klub, with his own brand of Sally Bowles and the Cabaret girls. The sparkling diamond, Satine, gorgeously and seductively portrayed by the beautiful Karen Olivo (Broadway’s West Side Story) enters as expected but takes us on a different but rare cut route almost immediately. We are given all that we could want from her and the handsome Aaron Tveit (Broadway’s Next to Normal) as our lovestruck bohemian poet, Christian, but with added spark and new mashed up melodies. Olivo is impressively strong in the role, only faltering within the breathless moments that need some reshaping and dynamic fear implanted. She does find the delicate balance between desire, passion, greed, survival, and, most importantly of all, love.
Tweit delivers, but in many of his dialogued moments needs to deepen his insecurity and awe, in the way that made McGregor perfect in the role. But I’d rather not harp on impossible comparisons, as his interpretation is solid and his voice is glorious, never faltering, soaring up into the heavens with ever note. He easily engages, pulling us forward and enticing us with his pained emotional plea, “Never knew I could feel like this”. The glorious Toulouise-Lautrec, played majestically by the delightful and soulful Sahr Ngaujah (Public’s Mlima’s Tale) pulls Christian and fellow Bohemian and Argentinian, Santiago, portrayed perfectly by the delicious Ricky Rojas (Broadway’s Burn the Floor) deep into the depths of the Moulin Rouge!. Ngaujah’s Lautrec, filled with a sadness that I can’t quite describe, brought tears to my eyes, especially with his delicate classic song pulled from the opening of the film. It’s a quick descent into his pain, and done expertly keeping us blind-sighted and intrigued with every new and old musical moment and lyric, while never disappointing us with an omission or neglect.
Then in walks the Duke, aggressively played by the dashing Tam Mutu (Broadway’s Doctor Zhivago). This is not the same character from the film, mind you, as this is a man to be reckoned with. He’s the sexual enticing bad boy; handsome, powerful, and rich, with an edge that makes you tingle. He’s not the buffoon played hilariously by the gifted Richard Roxburgh in the film, but a true counterpart and competitor, and he does not take losing well. He’s physically dangerous, and it is reflected within each new muscular songs that is deemed appropriate for such a man. 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 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 Satine didn’t.
I’m not going to say too much more about the details, because part of the joy and thrill of this dark and delicious feast is the surprise and edginess of the journey. It truly is remarkable that because of the solid work of the whole creative team, including sound design by Peter Hylenski (Broadway’s Once on This Island), music producer, Matt Stine (Barrow Street’s Sweeney Todd); music director, Cian McCarthy; co-orchestrators, Katie Dresek, Charlie Rosen, & Matt Stine; music coordinator, Michael Aarons, the tale is told with such force and passion. It’s a bit more decadent and charged than the movie; gone are the object distortions of the solid camera work by the brilliant cinematographer Donald McAlpine (Baz’s “Romeo + Juliet“), but in its place is a sinister veil and a heightened sexual tension that will make you lean forward, and almost fall head first into the sexuality of the Moulin Rouge!.
The movie was almost virginal in many ways, delighting in the romantic tendencies of the Bohemians, with the neon L’Amour hanging over the proceedings. Kidman’s Satine managed to avoid the Duke’s advances, but this Moulin Rouge!, that device has given way to something more desirous, especially inside the powerful Argentinian tango arrangements beautifully choreographed by the impressive Sonya Tayeh (Ars Nova’s The Lucky Ones). She strips everyone down to their most carnivorous of selves and gives us an edge of danger and decadence. Coming nearly at the end of this almost three-hour extravaganza, I was breathlessly awaiting this moment with an ever-increasing anxiety until finally the tango slid its way onto that stage. I had almost given up, like many other moments throughout, when one starts to wonder if this or that song was dropped (I only consciously caught one omission, and one I was glad to see gone), but I was forsaken, because in Roxanne glided with a provocative rhythm, relieving me of my tension and thrilling my senses with its inventive staging. Admittedly, I was a tad disappointed that the duet (see the film version here) became a less rough solo for Christian, but the moment still rang true and solidly. In terms of criticism, that’s about all I have. There are still some awkward staging moments that need some attention before it can-can’s its way onto the Broadway stage, but they are all fixable and minor. The main course is as strong as you could have hoped for, with so many added musical gems that will delight and amaze with their sparkle, one that I can’t wait to sit down and gorge myself on the very next chance I have. Hurry up, and get your sexy asses to New York. Broadway needs its Moulin Rouge!.
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