Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Truth, Beauty, Freedom, Love: As a Stage Musical, Dazzling 'Moulin Rouge' Quite Audaciously Can-Can -- Boston Theater Review

Theater Review

Moulin Rouge!: The Musical
World Premiere
Emerson Colonial Theatre, Boston
Thru August 19

Mashing up pop songs and showtunes--including many snippets--such as Labelle's "Lady Marmalade," Elton John's "Your Song," Rodgers & Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music" and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to anachronistically accompany a plot set in Paris in 1900, director Baz Luhrmann's 2001 movie musical Moulin Rouge! could well have had the makings of a complete mess.

Certainly, its central storyline--of doomed-yet-eternal love between a penniless Bohemian dreamer and a beauty seemingly beyond his reach, repeatedly thwarted by a scurrilous jackass with the help of a malevolent henchman--was not only ridiculously melodramatic, but pretty much familiar to everyone in the world who had seen Titanic just a few years earlier. (And roughly the tale of many other fictional works.)

But I largely loved Moulin Rouge!, in part because Luhrmann predominantly pulled off his audacious ambitions, and--with a cast of delectably odd characters like famed painter Toulouse-Lautrec (played by John Leguizamo)--forged a film that felt brashly fresh, with Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor in the lead roles.

The year 2001 also marked the arrival on Broadway of two hugely successful musicals: The Producers and Mamma Mia.

While the former was certainly not the first stage adaptation of a popular movie and the latter not the premiere instance of a "jukebox musical" using famed pop songs, they were watershed examples, and the years that have followed have seen a vast proliferation of shows in one vein or the other, occasionally intertwined.

So although Wikipedia notes the possibility of a Moulin Rouge! musical--derived from the Luhrmann film, as other movies with the same title have existed for nearly as long as the famed Parisian cabaret it celebrates--dating back to 2002, who knows why it's taken this long for such a show to be developed?

I would imagine a big challenge was in securing the rights to incorporate so many well-known songs, even for merely a few seconds--as I'll explain, the new musical carries some over from the movie, but also smartly uses far more modern pop hits--and to configure the narrative to work on stage.

Photo credit on this and all subsequent pictures: Matthew Murphy
Until a couple months ago when I began to plan a trip to Boston this past weekend, I didn't know Moulin Rouge!: The Musical was in the works.  

But I instantly knew I wanted to see the World Premiere, not just because of the movie, but due to the stellar cast and crew involved.

Tony-winner Karen Olivo--who I've seen on Broadway in In the Heights and West Side Story, and as Angelica in the original Chicago cast of Hamilton--plays the Kidman role of Satine, star attraction at the Moulin Rouge and also a courtesan.

Aaron Tveit, a Broadway, TV and film star who was in the Les Miserables movie--as Enjolras--is Christian, now an American composer rather than McGregor's British poet.

And bringing impressive Broadway credits--I've seen him in The Drowsy Chaperone, Follies and Cabaret--Danny Burstein makes for a terrific Harold Zidler, proprietor of the Moulin Rouge.

Perhaps even more importantly, in terms of making Moulin Rouge! a coherent stage piece, the book is by John Logan, a noted playwright (Red, Never the Sinner) and screenwriter (Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo).

Though he wrote the script for the Sweeney Todd movie, this seems to be just his second stage musical, but I really liked his work on The Last Ship, even if it crashed on Broadway.

Director Alex Timbers also brings a strong pedigree--Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Peter and the Starcatcher, Here Lies Love, Rocky: The Musical--and in his brief and classy Playbill credit, he dedicates his work on Moulin Rouge! to "his late collaborator and friend Michael Friedman (1975-2017) whose work exhibited truth, beauty, freedom ad love." (The pair co-wrote Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson; Friedman passed last year from complications related to HIV/AIDS.)

So in entering the gloriously refurbished Emerson Colonial Theatre--the oldest continuously operating theater in Boston (since 1900)--and noticing the resplendent set by Derek McLane, I had fairly high hopes for Moulin Rouge! well entertaining me.

But as a Chicagoan who attended this show as a paying customer while on vacation--and having recently read that it may be about a year or more before it hits Broadway--I am really only writing this review because of just how great I found Moulin Rouge! to be.

Giving the show's producers the type of quote that would adorn marketing materials and marquees if only I were a more-noted critic, I can honestly say that:

Moulin Rouge! is the best new musical I've seen since Hamilton.

In full disclosure, I've yet to see the highly-acclaimed Dear Evan Hansen, but have seen several notable recent musicals, including The Band's Visit, Come From Away, Waitress, On Your Feet, War Paint, Pretty Woman, The Cher Show, Heartbreak Hotel and numerous others on, heading to or coming from Broadway--and I truly liked Moulin Rouge! more than any of them.

And while it isn't Hamilton, I would dare suggest that in its own way, Moulin Rouge! does kinda reinvent the musical theater form.

As noted above, the use of pop songs is nothing new, and many a jukebox musical has eschewed focus on a single artist's catalog to employ a multitude of known tunes likely to delight.

Rock of Ages, Million Dollar Quartet, Priscilla: Queen of the Dessert and Motown: The Musical come to mind in this regard.

But like the movie--and I actually found the musical to be even better--Moulin Rouge thrills with its smorgasbord of songs seemingly at odds with turn of the 20th century Paris, but which work quite well within the context of the story and the walls of the Moulin Rouge, which continues to operate to this day.

Much of the delight--beyond the thrilling stage design and wonderful performances by Olivo, Tveit, Burstein, Sahr Ngaujah (as Toulouse-Lautrec) and many others--comes in being surprised by where, when and how songs will be incorporated.

There is no song list in the program, and even in assuming most reading this won't be seeing Moulin Rouge anytime soon, I'm going to be rather circumspect in spelling out the musical selections and their specific use. (Wikipedia can fill you in far more fully, if you really wanna know.)

As in the movie, "Lady Marmalade" is used rather prominently, as is "Your Song" and The Police's "Roxanne."

So too is "Come What May," which was actually written for Luhrmann's Romeo+Juliet film, but rather than being used there, became the rare original song central to the Moulin Rouge! movie.

Tveit and Olivo do a better job singing it than did McGregor and Kidman.

But adding considerable contemporary freshness to Moulin Rouge!--and clearly delighting many of the millennials seated near me in the balcony--key moments incorporate hit songs from the current decade, including by the likes of Lorde, Rihanna, Fun, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Sia and Adele.

And for those of us more steeped in classic rock, there is also a Rolling Stones medley featuring three of their most famous songs.

As with Olivo--who sparkles as Satine--Tveit has great pipes and makes for a dashingly likable Christian.

Ngaujah's Toulouse-Lautrec isn't quite as distinctive as Leguizamo's, but probably in a good way due to leaving out the latter's lispy vocal affect.

And Tam Mutu's characterization of The Duke as a cocksure jerk, rather than the squirrelly weasel Richard Roxburgh made him in the movie, feels like a well-merited modification. 

After a largely euphoric first act that left the audience nearly gasping, the melodrama tends to drag a bit in Act II, though the opening number--as Christian, Satine, Toulouse-Lautrec, Vidler and more work on a new musical for the Moulin Rouge--is Spectacular, Spectacular (even as the show within the show isn't named as such, as in the movie).

But Logan's script is strong enough to sustain the songs, which often surprise and largely delight.

It's quite possible that some musical choices were based in part upon obtaining permission or rights clearances, but while I found myself wishing for "When Doves Cry" and/or "Let's Dance" to appear late in the show, the number of hits employed--across many genres and eras--is rather impressive.

Rarely did I feel the creative team had to settle, and some songs--particularly Florence & the Machine's "Shake It Out"--felt truly amplified by their inclusion and delivery, beyond my existing appreciation.

So while I imagine the creative team will continue to tinker as Moulin Rouge! is prepped to hit Broadway seemingly sometime in the middle of next year if not later, I really think it's ready now.

Sure, it could get smoothed out a bit, but as it stands, the musical is one of the best--and most logical--screen-to-stage transfers I've ever seen...and an absolute delight.

Bring some new vibrancy and audiences to Broadway? Win a few Tony Awards including Best New Musical? Run for years on the Great White Way with subsequent mountings in London, Paris, Las Vegas, Chicago and more?

Yes, I truly believe Moulin Rouge: The Musical most assuredly can-can.

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