As the hoopla over Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy Elvis biopic seems nowhere near subsiding, many of us have been reassessing the filmmaker’s previous works, from Romeo+Juliet to The Great Gatsby. More recently, we admired his vision of 70’s New York in the Netflix series The Get Down. But Luhrmann’s biggest achievement on film was most notably the Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor extravaganza Moulin Rouge, and the stage show it inspired has been universally lauded for capturing its excess and excitement. The West Coast production of Moulin Rouge! The Musical at the Hollywood Pantages is no exception.
It’s pretty easy to see why this show won 10 Tony Awards, including best musical. The crowd-pleasing elements are bold and bodacious. From the crimson-hued set, lit up like a Valentines Day celebration in Vegas, to the spectacular costumes to the hit song-packed numbers culled from nearly every decade of popular music (including modern tracks that didn’t exist when the film came out), Moulin Rouge! The Musical is a no-brainer good time.
Of course, a strong cast can make or break even a well-conceived show. The L.A. production has one, and each player brings impressive vocal range and sensual charisma –in a show like this both are required– to the spectacle. From the stars up front to the background players, everyone is fully and very physically invested. The dancing in this one rarely stops.
The story concerns an earnest young man named Christian (Conor Ryan), a songwriter who comes to Paris to find stardom but instead finds love. He and new friend Toulouse (André Ward), create a show for the Moulin Rouge nightclub, where the enchanting Satine (Courtney Reed), is the big draw act. The owner of the club (Austin Durant) wants Satine to romance the Duke of Monroth (David Harris) so that he may finance the struggling venue’s entertainment, and hence save it. But fate has other plans and due to a case of mistaken identity, Satine and Christian meet and fall in love instead, forcing the pair to make up a show within the show that mirrors the whole situation and sees the lovers meeting up in secret behind the duke’s back.
Anyone who saw the movie knows that despite its ‘love conquers all’ themes, the story is a tragedy. Satine is ill and soon finds out she is dying. She tries to do what’s best for all, sacrificing her true heart for the good of the club, but in the end must live (for however long she has) her truth. Ryan does a good job conveying Christian’s hopeful, rather innocent zest for life, while Reed’s Satine evokes more of an old Hollywood starlet feel than Kidman’s darker take– the character is street smart, but she knows showing too much of that might distract from her allure, so she focuses on embodying the fantasy.
The pair’s chemistry might not be the hottest, but it doesn’t matter because both are beautiful to look at and listen to. Secondary characters Santiago (Gabe Martínez) and Nini (Libby Lloyd) create more heat, especially in their tango-infused number, which turns into a sweaty and seductive orgy of movement, with nearly the entire cast on stage singing and dancing their hearts out to the best song in the show– a multi-layered medley mix called “Backstage Romance” led by Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and Britney Spears’ “Toxic.”
Even with the burlesque-style looks (garter belts and corsets are the basic uniform here) and bounteous bump and grinds on stage, Moulin Rouge is rather tame in terms of sexual themes, though. There’s quite a few innuendos here and there, and of course, the whole thing is about selling one’s body in exchange for financial security, but ultimately, it’s about the purity of love, and as the tagline for the show reminds us, “truth, beauty and freedom.” It’s not exactly all-ages subject matter- but the production itself is so dazzling, it definitely would make for a fun family night out. You see more provocative stuff on TV these days, after all.
Director Alex Timbers (with book by John Logan, music arrangements by Justin Levine and choreography by Sonya Tayeh) has created a pretty irresistible immersive experience. There are more than 80 recognizable songs interwoven into the narrative– including of course, the “Lady Marmalade” cover that was a hit for Christina Aguilera, P!nk, Mya and Lil Kim.
The sheer volume of lyrical and melodic snippets in each vignette is dizzying and we found ourselves paying closer attention than usual to each number in hopes of catching every phrase, song snippet and mash-up moment. There are so many, we’re not sure we did, but we loved trying and the sonic blend was seamless and clever.
These types of shows are referred to as “jukebox musicals” for the way they layer on hit after hit, like a music machine, eschewing original numbers or limiting them as transitions to the all familiar stuff. Sometimes this formula can come off somewhat forced, but Moulin Rouge, which was one of the most successful projects to do this on film ever, leans into the over-the-topness visually and musically (as it should), making it a perfect show for the Pantages in Hollywood. Masks by the way, are enforced for the entirety of the show, and the historic building had added enhanced filtration systems since the pandemic, so it’s one of the safest theater experiences out there right now.
Moulin Rouge! The Musical runs now thru Sept. 4 at the Pantages, 6233 Hollywood Blvd. More info at BroadwayInHollywood.com. It will be at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa from Nov. 9- 27. More info at scfta.org.
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