If spectacle is your thing there is the glittering new “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” based on the film that was directed by Baz Luhrmann. It is set in Las Vegas—oh, excuse me, I mean 1899 Paris. Apart from the huge signature windmill of the famed Paris entertainment palace, cancan dancing, and a mini-Eiffel Tower standing like an erection as background for a romantic duet, the show might just as well take place in Vegas.
OK, I’m exaggerating. But the gimmick here is a juke box litany of modern songs—an avalanche of them, including popular hits--tossed into a saga that is supposed to take place at the Moulin Rouge and parts of Paris. That wipes out most of the Parisian ambience needed for the unfolding of the book by John Logan under the lavish direction of Alex Timbers.
The good news is that the cast is first-rate, including Danny Burstein giving a broadly colorful portrayal of the proprietor, Harold Zidler, doubling as an MC; the wonderful Karen Olivo as the tenacious singing star Satine; the excellent Aaron Tveit as her suitor from Ohio, the penniless and francless songwriter Christian, and Tam Mutu as the unscrupulous Duke of Monroth, who wants to own both Satine and the Moulin Rouge.
On entering the Al Hirschfeld Theater we know immediately that we are in spectacle territory. Sexily costumed men and women are slowly gyrating at both sides of the theater. Two gals swallow swords. An imposing scenic elephant hovers over the right side of the theater. In-depth layers of huge, valentine-like hearts are part of the scenic splendor. As the show progresses the sets and flashing lights get more and more dazzling. The costumes become increasingly lavish.
Scenic designer Derek McLane, costume designer Catherine Zuber, lighting designer Justin Townsend, sound designer Peter Hylenski, choreographer Sonya Tayeh and everybody who had a hand in the physical production deserve applause. Also, Justin Levine merits praise for music supervision, orchestrations, arrangements and additional lyrics.
Add praise for the large aggregation of hard-working, talented male and female chorus members, as well as supporting cast members Sahr Ngaujah as Toulouse-Lautrec, Ricky Rojas as Argentine dancer Santiago and Robyn Hurder as Satine’s supportive colleague Nini.
By the second act the concept and plot start wearing thin. Satine is plagued by deepening consumption, the Moulin Rouge is threatened with closure and unemployment for all if everyone doesn’t knuckle under to the power of the Duke. Will Satine give in to him or revolt to follow her true affection for Christian? All of this is mirrored in the plot within a plot as the new show to be staged at the Moulin Rouge reflects lives of the characters, their conflicts and coming tragedy.
True to form, spectacle takes over for the finale, in which, if you please, male dancers in top hats and tails are also wearing white skirts. Anything goes.
The idea for the show, whether or not you find it misconceived, is carried through with show biz expertise. It is amusing to hear lyrics from “The Sound of Music” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” even if the result eclipses Paris. And it is a delight to hear Olivo, Tveit and Mutu sing the assembled numbers and to enjoy ever-skillful Burstein getting in his licks.
Tourists who can see on Broadway the spectacle they don’t get back home are a built-in audience, and the show is also geared for anyone else who delights in such spectacle and solid performances to match without worrying about what’s lacking. But for the real thing, take a trip to Paris, where the Moulin Rouge, after going through various incarnations since its founding in 1889, will celebrate its 130th anniversary in October. At the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed August 4, 2019.