A keg-stand when the keg is filled with absinthe, a banquet of drug-laced truffles, a riot, a wallow, a leg show and an all-time greatest hits radio countdown run amok – Moulin Rouge has arrived on Broadway.
An adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie, apparently so beloved that at a recent performance about a third of the audience seemed to be cosplaying its characters, the musical is a high-sheen gloss on the Camille story, in which a courtesan with 14-karat heart is maybe kind of redeemed by the love of a good man and then expires tragically, because of consumption and sin.
You could be forgiven for thinking that this tale has reached its sell-by date. But Moulin Rouge is one of those shows that is not only critic-proof, but maybe also story-proof. In Alex Timbers’s production, with a book by John Logan, the characters are so thinly drawn that they disappear behind their corsetry and the love triangle so lopsided that it defies most laws of geometry. Any subtext has been shoved into a push-up bra and short shorts. It doesn’t matter.
But here, if you insist, are the particulars. Satine (Karen Olivo, ferocious and occasionally tubercular) is the star of a nightclub act at the Moulin Rouge, the 1899 demimonde discotheque owned by Harold Zidler (Danny Burstein, rouged to infinity). Because the nightclub is financially troubled and because Satine is getting a little long in the canines and because this, let’s remember, is what courtesans do, she enters into a kept-woman arrangement with the Mephistophelian duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu). But she also falls for the pure-hearted penniless composer Christian (Aaron Tveit, dressed like a refugee from a Les Miz tour), because he really knows his way around a medley.
Will the club stage Christian’s musical? Will Satine escape the duke’s sexy, sexy wrath? Will all of that arterial blood come out in the wash? Hey, are they playing Rihanna?
The genius of the movie was not its narrative. It was its lavish design, its out-and-proud ahistoricism, its deep knowledge that popular music unpacks our hearts and help us to feel our feelings. When Satine and Christian proclaim their love for each other by trading snippets of song, a set piece of the movie neatly rendered here, the effect is Shazam for the soul. Here, the original soundtrack – Lady Marmalade, Your Son – has been updated and enlarged with hits from Adele, Beyoncé and, to introduce the duke, the Rolling Stones.
About that duke: Mutu is a charismatic actor and his scenes with Olivo are taut and charged. Tveit, a handsome face attached to a rich lyric tenor, has by contrast all the sexual charisma of a baked potato. His scenes with Olivo seem friendly, nothing more. He wants them to run off together – and what? Have a picnic?
That lack of chemistry should kill Moulin Rouge. It doesn’t. Why? Well, to put it in words that make as much sense as anything in Logan’s book: “Giuchie, giuchie, ya ya da da / Giuchie, giuchie, ya ya here.” No one has bought a ticket expecting credible psychology or depth of character. (You have? Well, the box office takes returns.)
What audiences apparently want is dazzle and excitement and pyrotechnics and trapezes and sword-swallowing and equal-opportunity lechery and Catherine Zuber’s sensuous costumes and Derek Mclane’s glitzy set and Sonya Tayeh’s playful, libidinous, clever choreography and a chorus belting out Bad Romance and Chandelier and Crazy (did they really have to keep Roxanne?) and a giant blue elephant that plays merry hell with a bunch of the sightlines.
Can Moulin Rouge deliver? Yes it can-can. Look, it is lifting its skirts to show you.