Review by Thomas Gregory
The Moulin Rouge, that original cabaret that started in 1889, has always been a corporate enterprise. It was designed from the beginning to give the upper classes a “look at bohemia”, and ,in doing so, never quite captured the life around it in Montmartre. It featured dancers (who reportedly “created” the Can Can), magicians, strippers, and even for a while a professional farter (or “flatulist”). Toulouse-Lautrec painted its posters, it hosted the Prince of Wales, and it launched the career of Mistinguett. In 1907, an on-stage kiss confirmed the relationship between Colette and the Marquise de Belbeuf.
Since then, “The Red Mill” has continued to present itself as a way for the wealthy and tourists to “slum it” with the artists and vagabonds. Its world has been romanticised in all art forms. “Moulin Rouge!”, Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, was only one in dozens of movies that have featured the cabaret, starting with short “moving pictures” in 1899 and moving through Huston, Renoir, and Allen. However, this film was particularly popular, coming off the back of Romeo + Juliet, starring a large cast of big names, and featuring some quite colourful cinematography.
Moulin Rouge! The Musical is an adaptation of Luhrmann’s film and is as frantic and colourful as anyone could hope for. Entering the beautiful Regent Theatre, you are confronted with the famous Windmill and Elephant, framing a giant neon sign. The sign rises on the stage of the Moulin Rouge and from there it feels as though the set never stops changing. A kaleidoscope of creativity, Derek McClane’s design features all the aesthetics of that fictional Paris you hope to see, flashy to the point of being gaudy, and celebrating it.
The show opens with Lady Marmalade, just as one would hope, and makes sure to feature all the major songs from the movie throughout the night. In many ways, a giant musical medley, it features far more references and has updated its musicography to include music from up to only a few years ago. The live band is incredible, and the singing and dancing is of the highest quality - of course, that is what you would expect.
There are many ways in which this musical surpasses the film it was based on. Of them, perhaps the greatest is Alinta Chidzey. As a modern Satine, her portrayal is one of a strong, independent woman with far more agency than Kidman’s original character. When Kidman sang “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend”, it was about jewels. When Chidey did, it was about the agency such wealth can bring. Chidzey’s sense of humour is also within herself, laughing not in response to others but communicating a spirit of greatness. Charismatic, beautiful, and with a captivating voice, she is the star of the night for a reason.
Of course, Chidzey is fortunate enough to be offered in the best light. Catherine Zuber’s Tony-award-winning costumes provide as much character as any acting could, and Justin Townsend’s lighting design might honestly make a hag look beautiful.
In fact, one could argue the lighting of Moulin Rouge! The Musical is the best you will ever experience. Highlighting the best from the actors, costumes, and sets while carefully hiding those strings and rails of theatre so perfectly does so much to complement the music and performances.
Des Flanagan’s Christian is as great a performance as Ewan McGregor ever offered, and Flanagan is a far better singer. Meanwhile, it is difficult to entirely hate James Bryer’s Duke, who has a dark charisma that sheds the sleaze that Roxburgh brought to the character. Simon Burke has the time of his life as the scheming Zidler (based on the real-life cabaret manager). These stars are supported with brilliant supporting characters and an ensemble filled with characters you wish you could experience more of.
There is a problem with Moulin Rouge! The Musical, however, and one that took a little to ignore. It is an adaptation of the movie rather than simply a show inspired by it, which leaves it trapped in a place it clearly does not want to be.
Moulin Rouge! The Musical has all the brilliant fun from the original film, including the farcical first scenes inside the elephant and the surreal party involving “the green fairy”. It revels in how many songs it can add to the playlist, especially those that did not exist when the movie came out. Without a doubt, Luhrmann would have wished to have “All the Single Ladies”, “Chandelier”, and “Bad Romance” when making his original piece. While some newer additions did not receive the expected audience reaction, and some references were more gimmicky than anything else, others received roars of excitement. The entire party atmosphere was electric, and the post-story epilogue highlighted just how much it was this part of the movie the show most wanted to capture.
The problem is that Moulin Rouge! (the movie) isn’t just funny and colourful. It is also a dark tragedy, with tinges of maliciousness, and Luhrmann treats his worth with sincerity. Satine is dying, and that is never forgotten. Christian’s narration is past tense and filled with mourning. Likewise, one couldn’t adapt this movie without including the romantic “Come What May”.
Unfortunately, these are the things that hold the musical back. Despite a valiant attempt in the second act, the show struggles to offer any darkness or sincerity, and there is a real feeling that it doesn’t want to approach it at all. Satine’s illness is glanced at, and her final death is rushed through as quickly as possible. While one scene (which adds Gnarls Barkley to The Police) offers something serious that works, nothing else really does.
This isn’t made any better by the lack of any real chemistry between the two stars. While individually brilliant performers with incredible stage presence, this show isn’t the romance the movie is, and sparks never fly. The steamiest scene from Moulin Rouge! The Musical is between Ryan Gonzalez’ Santiago and Samantha Dodemaide - honestly, they almost stole the show with it. While amazing singers, Chidzey and Flanagan also never seem to connect as a duet. When so much of the movie’s heart is found in the harmony between the stars, its absence is noted in the musical.
Moulin Rouge! The Musical is a fantastic spectacle, filled with fast-paced excitement, masterful musical mashups, and a life-filled vibrancy sorely needed in these dark days. It takes all the greatness of Baz Luhrmann’s movie and improves on it. Who knows just how incredible it could have been if it had been only inspired by it instead of adapted from it.