By Patrick O’Brien
With his 2001 film Moulin Rouge!, maximalist auteur Baz Luhrmann didn’t so much capture lightning in a bottle so much as cask some old-school absinthe straight out of fin de sieclé Paris’s Latin Quarter: something zingy and not a little hallucinogenic.
Luhrmann didn’t so much make a movie about a melodramatic love triangle–Satine, the swan-song singer, caught between Christian, the sou-less bard, and the flinty Duke who holds all the cards–as he made a love letter to melodrama itself, and especially to the Four Chords of Pop and its endless possibilities. He not only megamixed the twentieth century, but also venerated so-called “cheap music” as worthy. Yesterday’s tawdry melodrama is tomorrow’s Art, was his thesis.
Moulin Rouge! the stage musical, launching its national tour at the Nederlander, is like the absinthe anyone can find at Binny’s: a safe bet. It just depends on how much taste one has for “safe.”
Or how much one wants to shell out for a musical that’s a love letter only to itself.
It starts strong, for sure. Director Alex Timbers and his army of designers invite us into a Luhrmann-like headspace. Walking in, as show girls and stage-door Jeannots alike slink about and leer, it’s dangerous, sexy, beckoning. When the show begins proper, from the word “guiche,” music supervisor Justin Levine puts across a Luhrmann-like soundscape, tossing off thumping verses with gay abandon. With a bang like this, we should be off to the races in an infernal gallop.
Moulin Rouge! is at its best with these skittish medleys, or as it mixes styles. (“Bad Romance” gets the tango treatment alongside “Roxanne.”) Strangely, when it tries to play by the usual musical theater rules–naturalistically played scenes, just one song for the moment at hand–it gets much less interesting. Or, “cheap music” epithets aside, maybe songs like “Firework” don’t hold up too well. One senses the beefing-up of the songbook could have been done more judiciously.
Of course, “judicious” and “reported $28 million budget” don’t quite mesh. It’s the sort of enterprise that puts out puff pieces about how they went about wrangling the rights for the songs. It’s the sort of show where constantly asserting “We are Bohemians!” and a crack about “proletariat pretensons” can’t help but ring hollow. Forget Montmartre; these folks, supposedly one bad night away from the streets, have the means to set up their own municipality. (A Disney Theatricals subsidiary is listed among the producers.)
And plenty of classic movies, musicals, and operas have lived on well-worn plots and sometimes not making a whole lot of left-brain sense. Violetta’s full-lunged consumptive aria, anyone? Or take the last Tony winner for Best Musical: Hadestown, based on Orpheus and Eurydice, that old saw. How did that soar while Moulin Rouge! merely dutifully chugs along? (John Logan‘s book fully deserves David Merrick’s legendary diminution “lead-ins and crossovers by…”)
Just for starters, Hadestown had a decade’s worth of folky DIY see-what-sticks cred to its name before hitting the Main Stem. Moulin Rouge!, meanwhile, seems determined to spend its way into the “hit” column.
Not titillatingly louche, just gauche.
In fairness, as singers, dancers, and actors, the ensemble do make out as more than”paid karaoke singers.” Just about the only ones who rise above that are André Ward‘s Toulouse-Lautrec and Austin Durant‘s emcee Zidler. Ward has the Luhrmann-like cock-eyed bearing that makes “We are Bohemians” sound like a fresh cri de coeur and to stick the landing on a simple parable like “Nature Boy.” For his part, Durant finds the heart under the greasepaint and menacing show.
They shouldn’t be out in the cold, for sure. But one hopes they’ll one day find warmer environs than Moulin Rouge! Or at least give them–and us–a nip of something more distinct and bracing. Richer, too.
Moulin Rouge runs through May 14th at the James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W Randolph St. For tickets or more information, please visit either broadwayinchicago.com, the musical’s official website, or call (800) 775-2000.
Photos by Matthew Murphy.