New York City Theater
Al Hirschfeld Theatre
You want decadence? You want sex? You want passion? Then arrive in time for the pre-show shenanigans at the Al Hirschfeld Theater where the stage version of Baz Luhrmann’s film, “Moulin Rouge,” is spreading its extravagant plumage. Be dazzled by red and gold everywhere; heart-shaped cut-outs stretching back from the proscenium; in the side boxes a blue elephant to the right, the famous red windmill to the left.
Peopling these surroundings are butt-exposed women in bustiers; muscular men with come-hither looks; swells in formal wear; a pair of female sword-swallowers -- all unctuously slithering about in slow, undulating motion.
And then the show proper begins, a mouse of an evening blown up to elephantine proportions. Instead of an original score, the musical features some 70-odd jukebox numbers (supervised, arranged and orchestrated by Justin Levine) that evoke giggles of recognition from the audience. “Lady Marmalade, “I Will Always Love You,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Play the Game,” “Come What May,” “Chandelier,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Roxanne,” even “Nature Boy” and “The Sound of Music.”
In outline, the plot is a cross between “La Bohème” and “La Traviata,” not a bad pedigree. Christian (Aaron Tveit) an American seeking adventure, arrives in fin de siècle (1899) Paris. The budding songwriter meets none other than Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujus) and other “creatures of the underworld,” all wanting to live by “truth, beauty, freedom, love.” He falls in love with Satine (Karen Olivo), Moulin Rouge’s star performer who makes a high-flying entrance. ”
Pimped by the theater’s conniving M.C. (a jolly Danny Burstein) to give herself to the wealthy Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu) in exchange for his backing a musical-within-the-musical that Lautrec and his friend Santiago (Ricky Rojas) want to produce, Satine is torn this way and that between pure love and opportunism. What follows are thwarted feelings, an unused pistol, spectacular dancing including, of course, a vigorous can-can and a sensuous tango (sensational choreography by Sonya Tayeh), plus tons of scenery and, finally a death scene (consumption, you know).
A lot goes on but also very little that you can’t see coming down the tracks. But thanks to Alex Timbers’ gut-busting direction and the eye-popping sets by Derek McLane, costumes by Catherine Zuber and lighting by Justin Townsend, the evening is undeniably as colorful as anything in the Louvre.
Under the circumstances, the performances pulsate. Tveit is a superb leading man, his Christian a naïf operating in a milieu beyond his experience to handle. Olivo is majestic and conflicted, seductive yet confused about roles her Satine should play. (“No one owns me,” she says.)
As Harold Zidler, the M.C., Danny Burstein is open-faced, apolitical and guileful. Mutu is a sexy, self-confident Duke, weaponizing his money and patrician position. Ngaujah’s Lautrec and Rojas’s Santiago are fine though hardly decadent. The ensemble is distinctive, projecting more levels of debauchery than anything else in this whitewashed production.
Whatever it is or isn’t, “Moulin Rouge” is, at least, a testament to l’amour toujours. Nothing wrong with that.
--David A. Rosenberg
August 5, 2019