I have nothing against excess. It can be terrific fun if well applied. Like camp, however, even excess has its breaking point. When it becomes annoying, diminishing instead of adding to drama, music, visuals, an editor is needed. This production is sorely in need of one.
Baz Luhrmann’s original film conceit of using familiar, contemporary rock as the score of a nineteenth century story admittedly didn’t work for me. There, however, material was carefully selected; entire songs had impact. This iteration features an everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink mash-up: 70 pop songs, some wink/wink iconic, few allowed to play themselves out. The result too often sounds like bar music on acid. Justin Levine’s extremely similar arrangements and Peter Hylenski’s unmodulated wall of sound design don’t help.
Despite the axis of the film’s novelty, Luhrmann played it straight with his chronicle. We believed the young couple’s love, conceivably a romanticized first for both, and were sympathetic to Satine’s Lady or The Tiger choice. As stylized as the piece was, drama was effective. This production is all surface clichés and histrionics.
You probably know the ersatz La bohème story: The Moulin Rouge is failing. Desperate for infusion of funds, owner Harold Zidler (Danny Burstein) , pimps out his star, Satine (Karen Olivo) to The Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu), in hopes of patronage. Satine mistakes bohemian songwriter Christian (Aaron Tveit) for the duke and is smitten before the mistake is corrected.
The show, however, must go on. Satine is made responsible for a theater’s worth of lives. Christian will accept her on any terms. They agree to a clandestine affair. When Monroth almost catches the two with fellow bohemians, playwright Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) and dancer/gigolo Santiago (Ricky Rojas), quick-thinking friends suggest they want to audition an original show for the club. It’s called Bohemian Rhapsody. (The book is full of these vaudeville ouch allusions.)
Monroth agrees, taking ownership over both the establishment and Satine. The play within the play depicts the triangle. True allegiances become apparent, threatening everyone involved. The self-sacrificing heroine discovers she has consumption, but goes on one last time.
John Logan’s Book contains such pastiche exchanges as: “I can’t go back to the streets!” (Satine) “Then come with me to the stars!” (Christian) The author can’t decide between narrators. Both Harold and Christian make forays in that direction. And though I’m partial to Ricky Rojas, Santiago extra time makes no sense to the plot.
Karen Olivo (Satine) works hard. “Diamonds Are Forever,” “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” Material Girl,” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” comprise one number. The actress can sing but not really dance. Seduction, all poses and batted eyes, seems like satire.
Aaron Tveit’s Christian is a lightweight. There’s not a moment of credibility in song or speech. Emotional lyrics are loud and he grabs for Satine like he means it, but we feel no empathy and care, if at all, only because he’s poor and sincere.
The same might be said of Tam Mutu’s Duke of Monroth. Aside from a single scene late in Act II, he projects none of the charisma, sex appeal, powerful egotism, or volatility pivotal to the role. “Sympathy for The Devil” has all the sizzle of early Pat Boone.
Ricky Rojas, who gleefully inhabits this new take on Santiago, exhibits all the above qualities as they reflect his Argentinean. He could’ve brought passion and veracity to the part of the Duke. The tandem “Bad Romance” and “Toxic” (with dancer Robyn Hurder) are a pleasure to watch. Sahr Ngaujah is appealingly grounded as Toulouse-Lautrec.
Veteran Danny Burstein (Harold Zidler) is often the only one on stage acting. He manages to make something multilayered and human of a role with few supportive speeches. My only caveat is that the impresario appears down from the get-go and wouldn’t have let his paying public see it.
Derek McLane’s Set, replete with windmill, elephant, miles of lace, brocade, gilt, and Baroque relief (applied as well to theater walls and balconies) is an example of successful extravagance. Satine’s dressing room inside an elephant structure is beautifully manifest. Montmartre is evocative. Scrims featuring Lautrec’s art seem out of place, however, as here, he’s instead, a writer.
Scenic effects depreciate when invaded by the unnecessary presence of glaring lights (not light, but physical lights) employed, one assumes, by designer Justin Townsend. Additionally, projection of pink hearts or bubbles robs emotional moments with disco distraction.
Catherine Zuber’s splendid costumes are a second example of successful excess. Women wearing period influenced, corseted, burlesque costumes are sexy and can move. Can-can dancers appear in a panoply of modern, neon color, but dresses are accurate. The same can be said for opulent street clothes which are era correct except for color and to which Zuber has added a glut of jewelry appropriate to the show if not 1900s Champs-Élysées.
Photos by Matthew Murphy
Moulin Rouge-the musical
Book by John Logan
Based on the 20th Century Fox film written by Baz Luhrman and Craig Pierce; Directed by Baz Luhrmann
Directed by Alex Timbers
Al Hirschfeld Theatre
302 West 45th Street