Moulin Rouge: The Musical – A Sensual Ravishment

When describing the story-within-a-story of the original Moulin Rouge, a character describes it as “a magnificent, opulent, tremendous, stupendous, gargantuan, bedazzlement” — a series of adjectives that apply equally well to the stage adaptation currently playing at the Emerson Colonial Theater in Boston.

Moulin Rouge set at Emerson Colonial Theater

The show lives up to the standards set by the 2001 movie musical, engaging in a series of back to back musical mash-ups while the ensemble cast takes the stage, moving in more directions than can be counted at any given time. From the opening scenes, the audience is subjected to an overwhelming collection of bright lights, colorful costumes, and incredible choreography, moving the two dozen or so cast members around the stage in coordination.

The storyline wasn’t particularly original in 2001, and there’s nothing much changed in the musical adaptation: Christian [Aaron Tveit] is an aspiring songwriter from Ohio, come to seek love in the Parisian streets of Montmartre. After meeting Toulouse-Lautrec [Sahr Ngaujah], he heads to the Moulin Rouge to meet the lovely Satine [Karen Olivo], and convince her to help them put on a show at the Moulin Rouge. Together, they convince the club’s owner, Harold Zidler [Danny Burstein] and their financier, The Duke, who seeks Satine’s sole affections. Love triangle ensues, the show must go on, etc. etc.

The musical numbers are stunning, and performed amazingly well by the characters. Christian and Satine both provided amazing range to the eclectic mix of songs, from the Sound of Music to Elvis to Gaga. While a wide range the hits are brought back from the movie, a number of more modern tunes are brought in as well; adaptations of everything from Adele to Lady Gaga to the White Stripes. Fans of the original will find plenty of nostalgic callbacks, but the surprise mixing in of newer tracks clearly provided a new audience with plenty to look forward to. Finding a transition from spoken word or previously used track to a remix of an unexpected song often provided a chuckle of realization from the audience. Even old favorites, like the “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” mix brought forward from the movie, are updated with new tracks: in this case, bringing in additional notes from Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”. And the original ensemble numbers were among my favorite parts of the show: the “Bad Romance” flavored piece at the beginning of Act 2 (featuring not just Gaga, but a mix of 4 others, including Britney Spears “Toxic”) was an amazing set of visuals, and started Act 2 off with a bang.

Zidler, as our showman for the evening, leads us through much of the story, and plays more of a comic role than he did in the original. While in 2002 or 2003 I might have found this upsetting — my romantic streak let me put entirely too much importance in the Bohemian ideals espoused by the movie to let it be spoiled by explicit comedy — I felt it was a perfect fit. (The reality is that the story behind Moulin Rouge is slightly more vapid than I really would have granted in the past.) The note of comedy plays out throughout the show, and I think gives the production a different taste that makes it more enjoyable for the stage production.

The sets were incredible. It’s clear that I’m no theater expert, but I found them to provide absolutely stunning visuals; in some cases playing absolute tricks of the eye, providing a depth I wouldn’t have expected possible in a stage production. Again, the call backs to the original abound: the dressing room inside an elephant provides many of the same accoutrements as the movie, down to the heart shaped window looking out on the streets of Paris; the apartment in Montmartre providing an aesthetic that matched the intent. (A more professional reviewer in the Boston Globe does say “The production is as slick as it gets … Derek McLane’s sets are extravagant, ever-changing with a whimsical appearance of the Eiffel Tower” — so I guess it’s not just me.)

The costumes were beautiful and ever changing, but all provided a sexual energy, matched by the choreography of the show. From the pre-show opening, with corseted dancers engaged in sensual contact as cage dancers, to the all-male can-can line at the very end, you’re intended to be overwhelmed by the visuals presented.

The show was spectacular, and as Zidler predicted years ago: I came out of the show “dumb with wonderment”. With enough callbacks to the source material to cover all the nostalgia I need, while maintaining a taste of new mixed in throughout, I came away overwhelmingly pleased with the experience. As an entrée into the world of pre-Broadway musicals, I couldn’t be happier with this show.

Moulin Rouge runs at the Emerson Colonial theater through August 19th.

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