Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Emerson Colonial Theatre
Review by Nancy Grossman


Karen Olivo and Aaron Tveit
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The venerable Emerson Colonial Theatre reopens in grand style with the world premiere of Moulin Rouge! The Musical, an opulent spectacle befitting the crown jewel of Boston stages. After a construction issue pushed back the start date by two weeks, extending the run by a fortnight, the much anticipated pre-Broadway tryout finally opened to the press on Friday, August 3rd, following more than three weeks of previews and a gala performance for a star-studded audience the previous Sunday night. Based on the 2001 movie of the same name, co-written and directed by Baz Luhrmann, Moulin Rouge! is a captivating theatrical event that combines the highest calibre of set, lighting, and costume designs with powerhouse performances to immerse the audience in the world of 19th century Paris and its infamous cabaret.

For long-time Boston theatergoers, it is a thrill to once again pass under the marquee, through the entrance hall, and into the gilded lobby, spiffed up and polished to a luster where one can see the reflection of the Colonial Theatre's glory days. Nearly every head tilts back and smartphone aims up to take in the artwork on and around the ceiling. The feast for the eyes is almost too much before one even enters the auditorium, but then the play's the thing, and stepping through the next set of doors immediately alters one's perspective on time and space. The room is overwhelmingly red, with heart-shaped telescoping set pieces drawing our focus, and a neon Moulin Rouge sign suspended over the stage; men and women with exaggerated eye makeup and scantily clad in black fishnet and leather, adopt still poses in one corner or pose erotically in a loge; the blades of a neon windmill turn steadily above stage right, while a blue elephant peers down majestically from its perch high above stage left.

Moulin Rouge! bursts into action as the show-within-the-show kicks off with a quartet of strutting chorus girls ("Lady Marmalade"), a bevy of colorful can-can dancers, and a rousing welcome from Harold Zidler (Danny Burstein), the ringmaster of this human three-ring circus, decked out in top hat, red tails, and clownish makeup. His zippy onstage demeanor belies the fact that the club, like its decor, is seriously in the red, and only an infusion of capital from a wealthy patron can keep the doors open and the menagerie employed. Enter the Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu), the savior/villain whose charity comes with a steep price. The stage lighting becomes devoid of color as he coolly sings "Money (That's What I Want)," showing us who he is in an instant.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the class spectrum, in a scene in the drab, grey quarter of Montmartre, three Bohemians declare their philosophy of life—truth, beauty, freedom, love—and join forces to write a musical which they hope to stage at the Moulin Rouge. The artist Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah), Santiago, an Argentine dancer (Ricky Rojas), and American expatriate-songwriter Christian (Aaron Tveit) plot to capture the favor of Satine (Karen Olivo), the "diamond" of Zidler's troupe, in order that she might convince him to do their show. As the songsmith of the trio, Christian is the designated emissary who gains an audience with Satine, although she is expecting a rendezvous with the Duke, engineered by Zidler. Needless to say, the mistaken identity leads to complications that play out through the rest of the story. (Note: In a divergence from the movie, bookwriter John Logan and director Alex Timbers have drawn the Duke as more charismatic and less a dupe, increasing the stakes in the love triangle with Satine and Christian.)

The plotlines intertwine in a number of ways, as Zidler's goal to save the club requires Satine to make nice to the Duke, but she's not that into him, especially after being wooed by Christian. The Duke is not the least bit interested in the arts, but wants to own everything in his path, including Zidler, Satine, and the troupe of performers. While the trio of Bohemians wants the venue to produce their show, for Christian, the project is secondary to his pursuit of Satine. Everyone, with the exception of the Duke, has a hidden agenda that hangs in the balance and is in conflict with the goal of someone else.

The book scenes are limited, with most of the exposition done in song. As was done in the movie, Moulin Rouge! employs mash-ups of dozens of pop songs rather than original music, from a wide range of artists. Sometimes an entire conversation between two characters consists of a snippet of lyrics drawn from multiple songs, while other musical numbers are medleys of only a couple of songs. Elton John's "Your Song" and the romantic "Come What May" (Baerwald/Gilbert) are recurring selections, and both play an important role in the relationship between Satine and Christian. My ability to identify songs was a fraction of that of many in the audience who audibly and joyously let their recognition and appreciation be known. That factor aside, the choice of songs works to advance the story and explore the relationships.

Moulin Rouge! also has the singers who have the chops to deliver, chief among them Olivo (she blew me away), Tveit (a voice made for a rock score), Mutu, and Ngaujah ("Nature Boy"). The ensemble sounds great and impressively performs the amazing choreography of Sonya Tayeh. Burstein gives a nuanced performance in a role that is not entirely sympathetic, while Mutu is powerful in a role that is not sympathetic at all. Rojas captures the Latin lover and steams up the stage in a tango with Robyn Hurder (Nini). Cian McCarthy (conductor/keyboard) leads 13 musicians in the orchestra that matches the exuberance of the performers onstage.

There is never a dull moment in this show which is marked by its kinetic energy. In fact, there are times when it is hard to take it all in, to choose where to look for fear of missing something. Derek McLane's set may be transitioning from one locale to another, while several couples parade across the stage dressed in Catherine Zuber's incredible costumes, or Justin Townsend creates a lighting adjustment that draws your eye. Moulin Rouge! is a sensory feast that challenges your ability to catch it all in one viewing. With things moving as quickly as they do, the thing that is sacrificed is the depth of the relationships, especially between Satine and Christian. We know that they are passionate about each other, but don't feel it as much as we feel the danger between Satine and the Duke, or the protectiveness that Zidler feels for Satine. As good as Olivo and Tveit are in their individual roles, there is a lack of sexual spark between them.

On the whole, there is more than enough razzle dazzle in this energetic, electrifying musical, with inventive use of popular songs and one fabulous production number after another. Equally important, Moulin Rouge! proudly celebrates the Bohemian ideals of truth, beauty, freedom, and love, all of which seem to be in rather short supply in our zeitgeist. Come to this cabaret for a reminder of the power of love to change the world.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical, through August 19, 2018, by Ambassador Theatre Group at Emerson Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston Street, Boston MA. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster 866-870-2717, at the box office, or www.emersoncolonialtheatre.com .

Book by John Logan, Based on the 2001 Twentieth Century Fox Motion Picture written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, directed by Baz Luhrmann; Directed by Alex Timbers, Choreographed by Sonya Tayeh, Music Supervisor/Co-Orchestrator/Co-Arranger and Additional Lyrics by Justin Levine; Scenic Design, Derek McLane; Costume Design, Catherine Zuber; Lighting Design, Justin Townsend; Sound Design, Peter Hylenski; Hair Design, David Brian Brown; Makeup Design, Sarah Cimino; Production Stage Manager, Adam John Hunter; Music Director, Cian McCarthy

Cast (in alphabetical order): Jacqueline B. Arnold, Danny Burstein, Robyn Hurder, Holly James, Jeigh Madjus, Tam Mutu, Sahr Ngaujah, Karen Olivo, Ricky Rojas, Aaron Tveit; Ensemble: Jacqueline B. Arnold, Olutayo Bosede, Kyle Brown, Sam J. Cahn, Joe Carroll, Max Clayton, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Bahiyah Hibah, Ericka Hunter, Holly James, Reed Luplau, Jeigh Madjus, Morgan Marcell, Brandt Martinez, Jodi McFadden, Kevyn Morrow, Fred Odgaard, Khori Michelle Petinaud, Benjamin Rivera


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