Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Moulin Rouge! The Musical
National Tour
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's recent reviews of Gala and This Much I Know

Austin Durant (center) and Cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy for Murphymade
There are some experiences only theatre can create. One of them being spectacle. Nature is the queen of spectacle. Think Iguazú Falls or the aurora borealis or Kīlauea in an eruption. Movies can raise your pulse and heighten your attention, and fireworks can delight, but there is nothing quite like live theatre to involve you in the spectacle and elicit gasps of delight. That may even be the defining characteristic of spectacle: something that makes you gasp with delight.

Certainly not all theatre qualifies as spectacle, but Moulin Rouge! The Musical, whose touring production opened Friday night at BroadwaySF's Orpheum Theatre, more than meets the mark. It's over the top–and I mean that in the best possible way. In fact, if there were another top the show could go over, it would certainly do so–and probably find three or four additional tops to go over.

Let's start with the set. Or sets, because this show gives you more looks than you'll find on the grand staircase at the Met Gala. Derek McLane, who first blew me away with his stunning set for the world premiere production of I Am My Own Wife at Playwrights Horizons, has outdone himself. In fact, he may have outdone everyone. From the interior of the titular night club to a Parisian garret overlooking Montmartre to street scenes and dressing rooms and chateaux, McLane gives it all to you with blazing color, intricate texture, glorious detail. There is a sense of feverous passion with almost every scene change.

And the costumes! Jewel-colored can-can dresses, sparkling bustiers, men in tails, men in drag (well, man), top hats, giant hats, amazing headdresses, all this and much, much more–all with patterns and colors mixing and complementing, startling to the eye, thrilling for the mind. Of course this is only what we've come to expect from Catherine Zuber, whose place in the Theater Hall of Fame is well-deserved. She won her seventh Tony Award for these costumes and it's clear why.

The lighting by Justin Townsend is about as perfect as one could expect. He increases the drama, softens the heartache, accents the comedy and, above all, heightens the spectacle. And does it all somehow without his work calling attention to itself. We feel it more than specifically noticing it.

But without an amazing cast, all this great technical work could go to waste. This production is 95% of the way there. Pretty much my sole issue at the performance I attended was with Courtney Reed as Satine, the consumptive star of the show-within the-show. Though her acting was fine, her voice sometimes lacked the power it needed to shine above the strong chorus and multi-layered orchestrations. Fortunately, the two male leads–Conor Ryan as Christian, the American in Paris, a struggling composer, and Austin Durant as Harold Zidler, the Moulin Rouge's impresario–more than made up for what might have been an off vocal night for Reed. (It's possible this could have been an issue with the sound mixer insufficiently potting up Reed's mic.)

Ryan is especially effective; he has a powerful, luscious belt that often drew, yes, gasps of delight from the audience, but he is also quite effective with subtler, more tender phrasing. But it is Austin Durant as the mustachioed (and bearded) Zidler who steals the show. (Well, since it's his character's show to begin with, perhaps he merely reaffirms his ownership.) He brings an appropriately bawdy point-of-view to the proceedings, and impels the action forward. In addition to a delightful singing voice, his ability to clearly delineate between his onstage role as the emcee at Moulin Rouge, and as the manager of a club who is pimping out his star to an appropriately very handsome Duke of Monroth (David Harris) in order to persuade the noble to invest is impressive.

But I've said nothing of the songs, of which there are more than 70. I can only imagine the saga of what it must have taken to clear the rights to songs (often just snippets of songs) from artists as varied as U2, the Rolling Stones, Sia, Sting, Adele, Lady Gaga, the Beatles, Elvis, A-Ha, Tina Turner ... and so many more.

Or the story. I've said nothing about the story. Because, well (radio version), forget the story. It's not what's important. And it's ludicrous besides. Always has been, ever since La Bohème. A tubercular woman singing her lungs out every night before (spoiler alert) ultimately dying in the arms of her lover? No, the story that matters is the one director Alex Timbers (long one of my favorites, from his days with Les Frères Corbusier and shows like Here Lies Love, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson and A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant) is telling: come to the theatre and lose yourself for two-and-a-half hours. Oh, and gasp with delight.

Spectacles don't come along every day. And this one is in town for only a couple of months. Trust me, get a ticket. You deserve this.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical plays through November 6, 2022, at SHN's Orpheum Theatre, 1182 Market Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $61-$256. For tickets and information, please visit or call the box office at 888-746-1799. For more information on the tour, visit