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"Moulin Rouge! The Musical" Review: Voulez-Vous Coucher?

Artistry, showmanship, and royalties galore.

Picutred above: Aaron Tveit as Christian and Karen Olivo as Satine.

A million movies in one, the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film Moulin Rouge! had impressive elements, though it ended up giving me a headache with its relentless array of song snippets and its grating editing style. To me, the flick came off like a glorified K-tel commercial crossed with one of those old Stars on 45 medleys, wrapped in a doomy love story with lots of Frenchie atmosphere. You could practically smell the crepes—at least when the movie settled down for a few seconds to let you do so.

And now we have Moulin Rouge! The Musical, coming on the heels of the Tony-winning Hadestown, a New Orleans-flavored, doomy love story, also centered by an earnest young balladeer in love with someone he can’t have but dotted with a lot of raise-your-cup party spirit. Inventively directed by Alex Timbers (Beetlejuice), with a book by John Logan, the new Moulin Rouge! actually worked for me, even if (like the movie) it’s a rather cynical attempt to whip up something heartfelt.

Matthew Murphy

(L-R) Jacqueline B. Arnold as La Chocolat, Robyn Hurder as Nini, Holly James as Arabia, and Jeigh Madjus as Baby Doll.

The song palette has been updated to include Adele, Sia, and Beyoncé, and the snippets are sometimes delivered tauntingly and with humor, as if the characters are engaging in a “Can You Top This?” contest, though they then lay into the melodies with passion and oomph. What’s more, some songs are done in their entirety—and reprised—and the tempo dares to slow down now and then, though Act One mainly brings you an array of eye and ear-popping showstoppers. (And even before that, the spectacle has started, with actors prowling around the set and exuding attitude, as you take in the giant red windmill, large blue elephant, and “Moulin Rouge” sign looming out of some lit-up heart shapes.)

The story has young composer Christian (Aaron Tveit) pal-ing out with fellow bohemians Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) and dancer-gigolo Santiago (Ricky Rojas), and falling for Moulin Rouge star Satine (Karen Olivo), who mistakes him for a rich man, which definitely causes complications. There’s an actual rich man, too (Tam Mutu) and he desperately wants Satine, but mainly as a piece of chattel that he can make over and hide. When she starts coughing blood, you know that this has turned into The Red Shoes meets La Boheme. And throw in Cabaret, since Broadway favorite Danny Burstein plays the leering MC, who welcomes “soubrettes and sodomites,” and who obviously belongs to the latter group, making out with one of his provocatively clad boys. (A chorus line of men in tutus also adds to the quirky ambiance.)

Matthew Murphy

Tam Mutu as The Duke of Monroth.

Helping put all of this over, the design elements are in tip-top hands. The hearts and diamonds sets are by Derek McLane, the flawless sound design is by Peter Hylenski, the robust choreography is by Sonya Tayeh, and the vivid lighting and costumes are courtesy of Justin Townsend and Catherine Zuber. The result can feel like the ultimate Vegas revue crossed with a dress rehearsal for the VMAs, but it’s sweepingly entertaining, and the cast gives it some heft, with Olivo absolutely stunning, starting with her entrance on a descending swing (She kills it on “Firework”) and Tveit singing and emoting up a storm. (Their chemistry is not exactly electric and sexy, but it’s kind of sweet.)

Ngaujah is fun as he stands up to the capitalist creep (It’s not hard to draw Trump analogies), though his wistful “Nature Boy” song wilts. Mutu is fine, though he lays on the evil too thick in his screaming scene with Satine. Burstein has a ball and a half as the decadent but decent showman trying to hold things together. And I liked the “Bad Romance” tango between Rojas and Robin Hyrder (as a tough but compassionate showgirl), which takes a non-slavish approach to a familiar song.

After the inevitable doom sets in, the show just kind of mopes around, scaring up some more melodic snippets (“All those royalties!” you sit there, thinking) and wanly ending with a few notes from the opening showstopper, “Lady Marmalade." And then comes the inevitable curtain call medley for the tourists. But I was extremely glad I went. Piercing through the hokum and kitsch, the artistry and showmanship on display make for so many wow moments that this glitzy windmill is clearly tilting in the right direction.