August 10, 2019

"Moulin Rogue" Is Both Colorful and Colorless

The new musical Moulin Rouge! stars Broadway faves Karen Olivo, Aaron Tveit and Danny Burstine. It was staged by the go-for-broke director Alex Timbers and has a book by the award-winning playwright John Logan. 

It is also extravagantly outfitted by the Tony winning set designer Derek McLane and costume designer Catherine Zuber. But the show’s true star is Justin Levine, the musical supervisor who put together the patchwork of pop songs that make up Moulin Rouge!’s score (click here to read more about how he did it.) 

For if you love jukebox musicals, this is the ultimate one. It boasts more than 70 songs (or really snippets of most of them) by everyone from the Rolling Stones and the Talking Heads to Beyoncé and Lorde.

And lots of people do seem to be loving it. In the first week after the show opened on July 25, it grossed nearly $2 million, trailing only the box-office juggernauts The Lion King and Hamilton. 

My sister, a connoisseur of jukebox musicals, counted herself among the delighted and as we sat in the Al Hirschfeld Theatre watching the show, she nodded her head and bopped along happily to the parade of familiar tunes.

I’m fond of a lot of those songs too but they didn’t work for me here. As in so many jukebox musicals, they’ve been shoehorned in and strain to say anything meaningful about the characters or to move the plot along. 

Instead, they’ve turned Moulin Rouge! into a gameshow in which audience members compete to acknowledge each tune with audible sighs, chuckles of recognition and even applause, all with little regard for whether they are disrupting the flow of the storytelling.

As you no doubt know, that story is based on the 2001 Baz Luhrmann movie musical that used an anachronistic pop playlist to tell the story of a young writer named Christian who moves to the bohemian section of fin-de-siècle Paris where he hooks up with the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and falls for Satine, a courtesan who headlines the shows at the titular club.

Satine falls for Christian too but their romance is challenged by a wealthy duke whom the club’s owner has persuaded to invest in the place in exchange for having Satine become his mistress, and by an ominous cough that she can’t seem to shake.

Logan’s book sticks close to those plot points (albeit adding a few nice nods to LGBTQ+ concerns) but the film, which earned eight Oscar nominations, had fewer songs and so more room for the emotional beats of the story. In order to get in its full playlist, the stage version just skims the surface of emotion.

Despite some good work by Olivo (click here to read an interview with her) as Satine, Burstine (click here to read more about him) as the club owner Harold Zidler and Sahr Ngaujah, non-traditionally cast as the real-life Toulouse-Lautrec, I never cared about any of the characters or what would happen to them.

Even the spectacle—and there’s plenty of it—failed to excite me. The film won its Oscars for set and costume design and McLane has made sure to include its iconic images of a windmill and a giant blue elephant. He’s even extended the club’s louche bordello-like atmosphere into the theater (click here to read more about him). Instagramming is encouraged before the show starts.

Similarly, Zuber has dressed the cast in period costumes-sexy bustiers and crinoline petticoats for the women, dandyish top hats and tight frockcoats for the men-- that are suitably garish.

And in her Broadway debut Sonya Tayeh, one of the most inventive choreographers on the TV competition show “So You Think You Can Dance,” has put together lots of splashy production numbers that have everyone, men included, doing the can-can. The ethnically diverse and uniformly talented 20-member ensemble work their hearts out.

The problem is that it all seems so paint-by-the-numbers. And at times rushed, as everyone hurries onto the next pop song. Even the story’s inherently melodramatic ending Is undercut by an extended postscript that has everyone, including characters who have died, singing and dancing to the classic LaBelle song “Lady Marmalade.”

The audience at the performance my sister and I attended loved all of it. And the folks onstage seemed to be having a great time too. The reviews have also been forgiving. ("There are certainly worse ways to spend an evening than with a musical so visually gorgeous and vibrantly performed," read one.) 

So who am I to argue with all that? The show seems poised to be the kind of long-running hit that makes theatergoers feel that they're getting their money’s worth and that gives out-of-towners something to brag about when they get home. But alas, for me, it’s too much flash and not nearly enough fire.

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