Ross Douthat has called Baz Luhrmann’s deranged musical campfest Moulin Rouge! (2001) one of the best films of this century, and Ross should definitely seek medical attention for this delusion. Now we learn that it’s the Broadway stage that makes the ideal and proper home for Luhrmann’s Las Vegas-meets-Toulouse-Lautrec visions.
Moulin Rouge! The Musical will explore “that corner of your mind where fantasies live,” vows the leering emcee, the kind of goatish pansexual who cries, “Hello chickens! I want to make desperate love to each and every one of you!” Hearts swell. A cad schemes. Everything is lavish and loud and lusty. The men are in evening dress; the ladies are in ladies-of-the-evening dress. “L’Amour” reads the crimson-red neon sign in the back of the stage. It’s all gorgeous and tragic. Your 15-year-old daughter is going to adore this, the way a previous generation thrilled to Rent, another iteration of La Bohème.
Moulin Rouge! The Musical has proved a sensation since it opened in early August and is now the second-highest-grossing show on the Rialto, behind only Hamilton, with a top ticket price of $499. I wouldn’t pay that much, especially considering the show has no stars, and whatever cast succeeds this one will probably serve it just as well. Walk, don’t run, to the Abe Hirschfeld Theatre. But do walk, or at least mosey, if musicals appeal to you.
This fantastically gaudy production, directed by Alex Timbers, is an inventive, glorious celebration of pop tunes ranging from soft rock to hip-hop, all of them put in a glittery blender and served with a naughty wink. “Roxanne” gets reimagined as a tango. “Diamonds Are Forever” sidles up to “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” and they both take “Material Girl” out to brunch. “Sympathy for the Devil” collides with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” The hits of Lorde and Beyoncé and Talking Heads strut in unpredictably. A love scene is like a rap-off, except both sides channel the lite-FM sentiments of the likes of “Up Where We Belong” and “Your Song.”
Shorn of Luhrmann’s spastic music-video hyperactivity, the stage version makes it much easier to revel in the surprise mashups and clever reworkings. The characters have as much heft as the lingerie in which the actresses cavort, but the point is the dazzle. Each number is a spectacle, and there are so many tunes that listing them takes up two pages in the program, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Katy Perry.
The entire first act is a party, starting with the pre-show theatrics (two chorus girls do an impressive sword-swallowing act on the lip of the stage, which extends over the heads of the first three rows of the audience). It’s 1899, and the main attraction at Europe’s most risqué nightspot is Satine (Karen Olivo), who enters on a trapeze from overhead as her admirers, the dastardly Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu) and the impecunious struggling composer from Ohio, Christian (Aaron Tveit), look on in rapture. It takes exactly one number for Satine and Christian to fall in love, but the Moulin Rouge is in financial peril, and the only one who can save it is the duke. So the emcee and manager, Harold Zidler (Danny Burstein), sells the club, and Satine’s body, to the aristocrat. Satine and Christian are pretty sad about this development. A pistol gets waved around.
But just as you don’t go to the Moulin Rouge for the steak, you don’t come to Moulin Rouge! for the plot. Moulin Rouge! The Musical proves that you can bolt old songs to an even older story and come up with something lively and dynamic and fresh, certainly fresher than the average jukebox musical, which is prone to beat a song into an unrecognizable shape to make it fit a given plot development. (Remember when Clint Eastwood played “My Eyes Adored You” over the funeral of Frankie Valli’s daughter in the movie version of Jersey Boys? That was unintentionally weird.)
Olivo, who has a rich soul voice, does a fine job as the doomed heroine, and the dependable Burstein (who starred in recent Broadway revivals of My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof) brings along his usual puppy-on-Red Bull energy, but the actors playing Christian and the duke are nothing special. Moreover, the second-act opener, an elaborate number built around Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” is thrown in only to give marginal characters something to do, and should have been cut. La Bohème is a lean opera that can be done in under two hours; Moulin Rouge! is a padded bra of a show at two hours and 45 minutes. I found myself checking my watch a lot during the melodramatic second act. Still, even some of the downer scenes have flair, and at its best the show is a wacky, fizzy, sexy delight: Ooh La La Bohème.