Moulin Rouge! The Musical: A Review
A spoiler alert must be issued because in order to discuss the fundamental problem with Moulin Rouge! one must address the end of the dazzlingly opulent musical now playing to packed houses at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. Based on the much beloved equally eye-popping movie of the same name, Moulin Rouge! is basically an idealistic writer boy meets ambitious courtesan girl story, all set to a parade of pop favorites that range from Lady Gaga to the Beatles. This story also claims to be about freedom, beauty, truth, and above all love but for the Broadway incarnation that love is the love of spectacle and very little about the love of romance.
Upon entering the theatre, you are magically transported in dramatic fashion by set designer Derek McLane and lighting designer Justin Townsend’s elaborate designs of the house itself. Right from the beginning the atmosphere of Moulin Rouge! envelops and consumes you and the sets and settings throughout the show are equally grandiose to the extreme. It’s all designed to capture your imagination and establish a world that you must believe in as the red curtain rises.
Much like the film a great deal of plot set up happens in the first few moments of the musical, but when the opening of the film is over and the cinematic setting is absorbed by the audience, auteur Baz Luhrmann keeps focusing more and more on the story. The movie opens with garish opulence but then it takes a step back for the sake of plot. It’s a visual assault designed to drive its point home. It’s meant to ferment time and space and feeling in your immediate senses and lock them into your subconscious so that you are fully immersed throughout what follows and what follows is storytelling with romantic totality is its driving force. Every dramatic and comedic moment in the remaining film exists to drive that point home.
The plot of the musical follows the film version closely with some deviations that won’t upset fans of the flic too much. The world of the legendary cabaret Moulin Rouge, complete with French Cancan girls, wealthy paramours, and lurid backstage antics is all there. As is the key ending moment. The star of the club’s stage, the heartthrob of every wealthy Parisian man’s wallet, the shrewd, world weary, alluring yet vulnerable at the core Satine dies of consumption in the arms of Christian, her finally found one true love.
Baz Luhrmann let the heartbreaking tragedy of his motion picture ending stand alone. He let you live with the loss. You felt it when he turned out the lights. That made the visual madness of everything before it beautifully tragic. We lost the doomed Satine and with that loss we lost the Bell Epoque and beauty and life itself faded away. That deserves a moment of silence to absorb the impact. Moulin Rouge! the musical misses that point and it’s a high price to pay.
A huge extended musical number is added immediately after Satine’s death to uplift the house and leave ticket holders singing and dancing in the aisles. The producers here are so concerned with being an excessive entertainment for the throngs that they turned their backs on the heartbreaking beauty of the tragic ending of a well told tale. You can feel the insecurity in the telling because of this overblown musical reprise. It erases everything that comes before it. Someone’s overcompensating for something, it’s as if they’re afraid their show needs to be more, and there my friends is the problem. Moulin Rouge! is trying too hard and if you look behind the color and lights you can see it.
Now don’t be confused, Moulin Rouge! should, and must be seen. Moulin Rouge! is and will be a hit. The sheer audacity of it simply commands it. The journey from screen to stage has been ten years in the making and there’s a thirty-million-dollar budget at stake. Luckily for you every penny of that investment is boldly evident. If you are willing and able to pay the proverbial price then go you must. Be prepared to be entertained beyond your wildest dreams of excess. Just be prepared to feel a bit lost when the pretty lights go out and reality descends upon you on the ride home. It’s a good show but it’s not a great one. It’s a fabulous circus but it’s not truly great theatre.
Everything about Moulin Rouge! should be perfect but it’s not. It smacks of over blown self-indulgence, that’s its conceit, and if conceit were consumption Moulin Rouge! would be consumed in one fabulous explosion of colorful confetti and glimmering streamers. As a matter of fact, it is. At the end of every performance. And everyone cheers.
Edward Medina is an active member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), where he serves on both the Membership and Diversity & Inclusion Committees. He is also a voting member of The Drama Desk. Edward welcomes comments at EdwardMedinaAuthor@gmail.com.
Al Hirschfeld Theatre
302 West 45th Street New York, NY 10036