Review: Hit Songs to Sin By in a Smashing ‘Moulin Rouge!’
The jukebox has exploded.
Its pieces zoom through the air like candy-colored shrapnel, whizzing by before the memory can tag them and making the blandly familiar sound enticingly exotic. I’m talking about the recycled pop hits, mostly of a romantic stripe, that make up the seemingly infinite song list of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” at the Emerson Colonial Theater here.
By the end of this smart, shameless and extravagantly entertaining production, adapted from Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie, you’ll think you’ve heard fragments of every Top 40 song of lust and longing that has been whispered, screamed or crooned into your ear during the past several decades. You may even believe that once upon a time you loved them all.
Part of the genius of Mr. Luhrmann’s original version — which starred Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor as doomed lovers in a Bohemian, fin-de-siècle Paris — was that it put mainstream, latter-day radio songs into the context of a verismo costume opera like “La Traviata.” Not for nothing was Elton’s John’s “Your Song” the ballad most memorably shared by the film’s leading lovers.
That’s because it was your song, too. By dressing up the melodies you sang in the shower in opulent gaslight-era drag, Mr. Luhrmann created an equalizing paean to love ballads of all ages. The soundtrack of the commuter’s daily life acquired a purple grandeur, with Bowie, Labelle and Madonna assuming the velvet cloaks of Verdi and Puccini.
It’s been 17 years since this odd duck — or rather peacock — of a film first jolted international audiences. You may also recall that its arrival on screens coincided with the Broadway opening of “Mamma Mia!,”heralding an endless and wearying procession of jukebox musicals.
In the interim, the world has been treated, on screens big and small, to the life-as-a-mixtape antics of “Glee,” “Smash” and “Pitch Perfect.” All owe a debt to “Moulin Rouge!,” which would seem to imply that a stage version of Mr. Luhrmann’s film would by now be too late for the party.
But the creators of this presumably Broadway-bound, $28 million spectacle — directed with wit and heart by Alex Timbers, with seductive, funny choreography by Sonya Tayeh — have tinkered artfully with their archetype, translating the cinematic splendors of Mr. Luhrmann’s universe into more earthly pleasures. This “Moulin Rouge!” captures the sensibility of a movie-loving movie in a theater lover’s language.
The glamour is still here, but there’s a lot more grit. And we’re far more aware of the mortal flesh of the characters. This show also knows that a lot of new songs have flowed under the earbuds since 2001, and the list of those now included occupies three columns of infinitesimal type in the program.
Among them are hits from Lady Gaga, Florence and the Machine, OutKast, Lorde, Sia, Beyoncé, Pink, Britney Spears, Adele and Katy Perry, for starters. (You may pause here to bow your head to Justin Levine, the show’s music supervisor.) There are also some new repurposed oldies, so when the villain of the piece (the sadistic Duke of Monroth, played to the hilt by Tam Mutu) is allowed to introduce himself it’s with the opening lines of the Rolling Stones’s “Sympathy for the Devil.”
The heroine is still named Satine, and she’s still the vedette of the louche nightclub of the title, which is run by her old pal, Harold Zidler (Danny Burstein, delivering a master class in pandering, sentimental seediness). On film Satine was embodied with a porcelain fragility and Marilyn-esque breathiness by Ms. Kidman, a silver-screen phantasm about to evaporate.
L’amour: Karen Olivo and Aaron Tveit play a couple whose love is too radiant for this dingy planet.CreditMatthew Murphy
Here she is played in a more realistic key by a sensational Karen Olivo (a Tony winner for “West Side Story”), and no matter how bare her costumes, this Satine is wearing her sex appeal like a suit of armor. In John Logan’s baldly written (and still trimmable) new book for the show, Satine is a feral survivor of the streets who began turning tricks at 13. Like Harold, her partner in deception, she sees love — or the illusion of it — as a commodity for profit.
This transactional element is signaled from the get-go. Derek McLane’s fab psychedelic valentine of a set — a cornucopia of nesting pink hearts — is on full display when the audience arrives. And it is soon inhabited by corseted men and women with proffering gazes. (The plush, sin-ready costumes are by Catherine Zuber.)
Men with top hats and phallic cigars join these creatures of the night. Two women move to the edge of the stage to slowly swallow swords as they caress each other’s thighs. And when Mr. Burstein’s Master of Ceremonies raises his cane, it spurts confetti over the audience. He promises that he and his crew can service you, “no matter your sin, no matter your desire.”
And then there’s that smashing little rendition of an immortal ode to the working girl, “Lady Marmalade,” performed as delicious raunch-and-roll by Robyn Hurder, Holly James, Jacqueline B. Arnold and Jeigh Madjus.
At this point, you may think you’ve wandered into a Gallic variation on “Cabaret,” or immersive naughty nightclub pieces like “Queen of the Night.” And when Ms. Olivo makes her entrance on a trapeze, singing “Diamonds Are Forever” with a Shirley Bassey huskiness, she is just the sort of flower that would grow from such fecund soil.
But wait. There’s a young man who sees her soul beneath the spangles, and who exudes the glowing naïveté of an American innocent newly arrived in Sodom. That’s Christian (a shining Aaron Tveit, in the role created on screen by Mr. McGregor), a penniless composer, who’s been brought to the Moulin Rouge by his newfound friends Santiago and Toulouse-Lautrec (Ricky Rojas and Sahr Ngaujah, both delightful).
That Mr. Ngaujah (“Fela” on Broadway) looks nothing like the artist whose name he carries is a relief, a liberation from literal-mindedness. And it befits a show in which Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” is performed as a rough-and-tumble Folies Bergères-style rehearsal number.
That blissful sequence, which comes at the beginning of the overlong second act, is part of the show-within-the-show: a musical melodrama with songs by Christian and a script by Toulouse-Lautrec, with Satine as the star and the Duke as the producer.
It becomes the vehicle through which Satine, who has become the Duke’s mistress, and Christian act out their purer love, which is too radiant for this dingy planet. Will the duke twig on and destroy their love — not to mention the show, which is meant to save Zidler from bankruptcy?
You probably know the answers. But even if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll probably still be surprised by the triumphant ways in which recent pop standards have been reclaimed for the stage. Mr. Burstein leads a fabulous rendition of Florence and the Machine’s “Shake It Out,” the Moulin Rouge’s answer to “Put on a Happy Face.”
And Ms. Olivo and Mr. Tveit, in a role he was born to play, make contemporary aural wallpaper like “Firework” (Ms. Olivo), “Roxanne” (Mr. Tveit) and “Rolling in the Deep” (both) sound like impassioned, personal cris de coeur that their characters might have invented on the spot and out of necessity. These songs are their songs, which somehow makes them, more than ever, your songs, too.