For those still seeking out a post-lockdown hedonistic high, Moulin Rouge! (based, of course, on Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film) makes a brave attempt at scratching that itch. The film is an alchemical delight – romantic and craven, tawdry and glamorous. Moulin Rouge! The Musical isn’t quite as potent, nor does it have that edge of seediness that makes Luhrmann’s film so intriguing, instead investing in a level of opulence designed to overstimulate. Designer Derek McLane covers the Piccadilly Theatre’s walls in crushed red velvet, a working windmill spins in the royal box, and a main character makes her entrance on a rhinestone-encrusted swing that is lowered from the rafters. It is ostentatious, absurd, and completely ravishing to look at.
The plot itself is paper-thin, a melodrama encrusted in sequins: famed performer and courtesan Satine falls in love with penniless composer Christian, but is forced by the Moulin Rouge’s commander in chief, Harold Zidler, to pander to a rich but evil duke, who is the club’s only hope of survival. Subtlety is hardly the name of the game: Satine’s consumption is rapidly signposted via the theatrical device of Chekhov’s Ominous Tummy Ache. Really, Moulin Rouge! tends to be at its most enjoyable when it eschews such concepts as “characterisation” and “narrative” and throws itself entirely into its jukebox musical credentials, with a bevy of mash-up pop numbers that teeter on the edge of sonic blasphemy.
Justin Levine is the mad scientist behind these newly Frankensteined arrangements, and while there is something viscerally alarming about hearing Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” segue into Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” with all the delicacy of a steam train ramming into a building, somehow, possibly by the sheer force of will of a remarkable ensemble, one manages to emerge from the crash site dazed and grinning. Choreographer Sonya Tayeh throws everything at the wall within the first 10 minutes, incorporating the burlesque of “Lady Marmalade” into a boisterous can-can, and the best, most audacious number, “Backstage Romance”, remixes Lady Gaga and Britney Spears into a tango, before exploding into a raucous company number.
For the most part, director Alex Timbers wisely keeps the pace up, leaving little breathing room between each delirious group number and the next, but Moulin Rouge! does sag in its quieter moments, with John Logan’s book too thinly drawn to evoke any pathos for this doomed relationship (unfortunately, the saccharine “Come What May” has been retained from the film, and remains too generic to serve as a real emotional linchpin). It doesn’t help, either, that there is a deadening lack of chemistry between the two leads: Liisi LaFontaine is richly voiced but a little stiff as Satine, and Jamie Bogyo as Christian is charming as a wide-eyed ingenue, but requires more gravitas. They should tessellate, two halves of a whole, but instead bump up against each other.
And for all that Clive Carter’s oleaginous Zidler makes reference to the “reprobates and rascals, soubrettes and sodomites” that populate his club, there is little salaciousness or moral complexity attempted in this adaptation, in comparison with the sordid edges of Luhrmann’s film (which, arguably, made it all the sweeter). But that’s a quibble, really. Moulin Rouge! is determinedly set on entertaining its audience; and if that intention can lend itself to a blandness in its slower moments, and a smoothness around some of its edges, then there’s almost always a diamond of a number around the corner.
‘Moulin Rouge!’ runs at the Piccadilly Theatre
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