Review: ‘Moulin Rouge’ Gets a Lavish Pre-Broadway Tryout in Boston
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, August 13, 2018
Before the 1980s, Boston was a major out-of-town stop for plays and musicals before they went to Broadway. The economics of such tryouts have changed drastically, as has the standard model for developing new plays and musicals, and Boston’s glorious Golden Age theaters have been in danger of closing down or being converted for other uses.
Case in point, the jewel in Boston’s theatrical crown, the Colonial Theatre, now owned by Emerson College, was in danger of being converted into a student center.
Imagine. The birthplace of such landmark musicals as Anything Goes, Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma!, On the Town, Company, Follies, and La Cage aux Folles, converted into a glorified snack bar. When The Boston Globe leaked the plans to the public, there was a considerable outcry from theater fans and practitioners nationwide — including Stephen Sondheim himself — and Emerson scrapped its conversion plans.
Thankfully, the Ambassador Theater Group has stepped in and leased the historic Colonial from Emerson, and has begun programming the theater with a combination of theatrical productions and concerts, including Boston’s first for-profit out-of-town tryout in more than a decade, the stage version of the 2001 film Moulin Rouge.
Since the new Moulin Rouge began previews in July, social media has been awash in photos of the sumptuous scenic design by Derek McLane. And as stunning as the photos have been, seeing the actual set in person is even more impressive, rich with detail and extending out into the auditorium to envelop the audience in the action. Catherine Zuber’s louche and lavish costumes are equally stunning. And these sets are actual sets, not the flat, cheap projections that too many Broadway productions have been relying on lately.
Moulin Rouge is at its best when the action onstage matches the visual inspiration of the production. The first hour is a nonstop barrage of sight and sound, and the show is generally at its best when it’s singing and dancing. Things get a little bogged down in the book scenes, which director Alex Timbers seems to be struggling with at this point to integrate into the rest of the production. The choreography by Sonya Tayeh (“So You Think You Can Dance”) is thrilling at times, but just as frequently it’s pedestrian, as if she’s struggling to find a consistent style.
As in the movie, the score to Moulin Rouge is a collection of classic and contemporary songs, a seemingly innumerable number in the case of the stage show, with songs running the gamut from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Lady Gaga. But Moulin Rouge differs from other jukebox shows in a fairly significant way: many of the song sequences are basically mashups of a bunch of different songs.
For example, when the central character Satine (played with great depth and affection by Tony winner Karen Olivo) makes her big entrance into the narrative, she sings a medley of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” “Material Girl,” and “Single Ladies,” all pertaining to Satine’s central role in the show as courtesan to the nefarious Count of Monroth (a somewhat distracted-looking Tam Mutu).
The mashup approach is a seemingly simple but nonetheless canny choice that avoids one of the major pitfalls of jukebox tuners, the laborious effort to make pre-existing songs fit into a new narrative. Moulin Rouge only uses as much of each song as applies to the current moment, then moves on to the next song. It’s actually rather surprising that more shows haven’t tried this approach before. As with the best jukebox musicals, much of the fun in Moulin Rouge comes from recognizing the various songs in any given mashup, although admittedly sometimes this “fun” brings the viewers out of the dramatic moment at hand.
The stage Moulin Rouge retains the essential plot of the movie: Satine cozies up to the Count so that he will become financial benefactor to the famed performance venue, while Satine tempts fate by carrying on a not-so-secret love affair with songwriter Christian, played here by the always appealing Aaron Tveit. Tveit is always so natural onstage, and here is admirably restrained, given the excesses surrounding him, but is nonetheless emotionally affecting, particularly during the Christian’s climactic confrontation scene with Satine.
While the story of Moulin Rouge is a compelling one, much of librettist John Logan’s dialogue has a tin-eared, artificial feel to it. It’s not really clear that Logan, a Tony winner for his two-hander Red, has the right touch for the comedic aspects of the show. And some of the more dramatic dialogue feels a bit overripe as well. At one point Christian hurls at Satine the rather purple-hued query, “Why else suffer through this life if not for love?”
That said, Moulin Rouge as a whole is genuinely moving — more so even than the film — and occasionally thrilling. Much of the impact comes from the cast, including the aforementioned Olivo and Tveit providing kick-ass renditions of Katy Perry’s “Firework” and The Police classic “Roxanne,” respectively. Also on hand are Danny Burstein, deft as always at finding the compelling humanity of whichever character he plays, and Sahr Ngaujah, animated and affecting as a spitfire version of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Timbers and company have a considerable amount of tightening to do before Moulin Rouge is ready for a Broadway run. The end of act one and beginning of act two lose a lot of momentum before the show recovers in its final scenes. Some of the dance needs greater focus, including the sequence in which Christian and his pals drink absinthe, which really should be a lot more freaky deaky. And the “Roxanne” dance, such a standout moment in the film, needs a much greater sense of abandon. As for the story, the denouement of Satine’s affair with the Count isn’t nearly as climactic as in the film. It just sort of ends with a thud.
But there’s more than enough here to justify a Broadway transfer. Even if the show were to remain in its present form, there’s enough spectacle, talent, drama, and audience appeal to keep the show running for years.
Moulin Rouge, presented by Global Creatures in a pre-Broadway premiere at the Emerson Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02116, through August 19, 2018. 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; choreography by Sonya Tayeh; music supervision, co-orchestrator, co-arranger and additional lyrics by Justin Levine; scenic design by Derek McLane; costume design by Catherine Zuber; lighting design by Justin Townsend; sound design by Peter Hylenski; wig and hair design by David Brian Brown; music direction by Cian McCarthy; production stage manager: Adam John Hunter.
Cast: Karen Olivo, Aaron Tveit, Danny Burstein, Sahr Ngaujah, Tam Mutu, Ricky Rojas, Robyn Hurder; with Jacqueline Arnold, Olutayo Bosede, Kyle Brown, Sam Cahn, Joe Carroll, Max Clayton, Natalie Cortez, Jennifer Florentino, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Bahiyah Hibah, Ericka Hunter, Holly James, Brandon Leffler, Reed Luplau, Jeigh Madjus, Daniel Maldonado, Morgan Marcell, Brandt Martinez, Jodi McFadden, Kevyn Morrow, Fred Odgaard, Dylan Paul, Khori Petinaud and Benjamin Rivera.
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Cover: Danny Burstein in ‘Moulin Rouge;’ photo: Matthew Murphy.