What strikes you most of all is the lethal combination of red and sparkle. A rich boudoir red and eye-dazzling chandeliers that promise passion, sex and danger. Indeed, even before the show begins, the audience is seduced by corsetted women and men, lounging and shimmying around the stage in various stages of come-hither suggestiveness. Already you feel drawn to its immersive pull.
Those familiar with Baz Lurhmann’s 2001 Oscar-winning movie musical would know Moulin Rouge! is an overblown, decadent extravaganza: an assault on all the senses. Unashamedly melodramatic, its skeleton of a storyline is richly clothed with a soundtrack that covers a mash-up of opera, pop and cabaret. Its theatrical language is excess. If you’ve never seen it before and your idea of theatre is something a bit more contemplative and sedate, without neon in the colour scheme, then best to avoid this incarnation.
Twenty years after the movie and after many long COVID delays, Melbourne is hosting the Australian premiere of this stage production that recently won ten Tony awards on Broadway. A raucous rendition of ‘Lady Marmalade’ opens the show and its lurid bombast and popping choreography by Sonya Tayeh is a good example of the high-energy ensemble set pieces that will populate the musical thereafter.
With director Alex Timbers at the helm, the already sumptuous Regent has been faithfully reproduced as the Moulin Rouge nightclub in fin-de-siècle Paris. An indulgence of velvet and pulsating concentric hearts adorn the stage, setting the scene for the glittery nightlife to follow.
Though dreamy, penurious Christian has been changed from an English poet to an American songwriter/composer here, the narrative bones don’t differ too much from the celluloid version: Young Christian (Des Flanagan) is besotted with Satine (Alinta Chidzey), the charming but consumptive courtesan and cabaret star, while she in turn is being pursued by the wealthy Duke (Andrew Cook). His money is courted by club impresario Harold Zidler (Simon Burke) to save the ailing Moulin Rouge and Satine is the lure and the bait. Beneath the gaudy surface there are some important points here about class and privilege, about women being treated as baubles and transactional tools to satisfy or placate the ego and whims of powerful, moneyed men.
This not-terribly-original story of the classic love triangle is actually improved in the stage version by the decision to make Christian a songwriter responsible for many of the hits on show here: there are covers of about 75 songs (many have been updated) that include music from Adele, Katy Perry, Elton John, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, The Police, David Bowie, A-ha and Sia. Part of the fun is trying to guess from the first few beats which snippet of popular music has been arranged and spliced to fit into the story. This ploy works on the proviso of audience recognition for an emotional connection and it can be argued that it’s a tactic overused.
It was up to the curatorial work of writer John Logan and the orchestration and composition of Justin Levin to integrate and intercut the songs to advance the story. On the whole, they do a good job but it still feels like a gimmick too easily exploited. Sure, it’s a bit of a nice nostalgic trip to hear hit after hit of remixes, but I’d rather fewer songs and more emotional heft through story, instead of relying on the music to do most of the heavy lifting.
There is no mistaking the high production values though: together, team Moulin Rouge! works exceptionally well. As the leads, Chidzey and Flanagan are well matched in voice, earnestness and passion. Their supporting cast is similarly impressive, albeit the characters themselves are little more than caricatures: alongside the young lovers, the moustachioed Duke and oily club owner, there’s also the idealistic bohemians Toulouse-Lautrec (Tim Omaji) and Santiago (Ryan Gonzalez): both acquit their roles as well as all the others. There’s really no weak link here.
It’s easy to be distracted by all the ruffles, fishnets, sequins and feather headdresses; all the razzle dazzle presented for our visual pleasure by designer Catherine Zuber, and lit up or silhouetted by the pyrotechnic mastery of Justin Townsend, but occasionally, moments of quiet intensity remind us there is heart here beneath the style, like the moment when Christian woos Satine with a rendition of Elton John’s ‘Your Song’.
But Moulin Rouge! is more interested in showcasing the big score numbers; it wants to entertain you above all else (‘the show must go on!’) so even though, for instance, the ending of the story itself is not exactly happy, the concluding notes to wrap it up reprise the start of the show: pure sugar-hits and high kicks, which feels like a betrayal of what really is a tragic tale.
But still, there’s colour, movement and song aplenty and if you want a diverting and escapist couple of hours, then Moulin Rouge! will deliver with a bright red bow.
Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Regent Theatre, Melbourne
Director: Alex Timbers
Book: John Logan
Music supervision, orchestration, composition: Justin Levine
Choreographer: Sonya Tayeh
Costume Designer: Catherine Zuber
Sound Design: Peter Hylenski
Lighting Designer: Justin Townsend
Cast: Des Flanagan, Alinta Chidzey, Andrew Cook, Simon Burke AO, Tim Omaji, Ryan Gonzalez, Samantha Dodemaide, Kara Sims, Ruva Ngwenya, Christopher J Scalzo.
Moulin Rouge will be staged until 29 April 2022.