“Firework” by Katy Perry is a wrenching powerhouse showstopper as performed by Karen Olivo in the opulent, thrilling and affective Moulin Rouge!: The Musical. This stage adaptation substitutes many of the pop classics from auteur Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 La Bohème and Camille-inspired movie musical co-written with Craig Pearce for more recent ones, but it is faithful in plot and outrageous spirit.
“Lady Marmalade” is still the exhilarating opener and it joyously returns throughout, along with notes of Offenbach’s Cancan and strains of Bizet’s Carmen. This is a compelling mega jukebox musical extravaganza containing grand performances.
Before the show begins, the audience is able to marvel at and take pictures of scenic designer Derek McLane’s awesome creations. On one side of the mezzanine is the windmill and on the other side is the elephant, and there’s a configuration of spiral staircases and a cage. The red decorated stage is surrounded by a huge weathered gold frame. Later on, there are gray Parisian streets, a panoramic cityscape seen from a window and a large wheelie replica of the Eiffel Tower that figures in a dance routine. Performers gradually and eerily appear.
It’s 1899 on the Left Bank of Paris when Ohio native Christian arrives. He is a dashing young composer who falls in with a crowd of Bohemians, including artist and writer Toulouse-Lautrec. They write a musical championing the proletariat and contrive to have it performed at the Moulin Rouge nightclub which is shakily owned by the flamboyant Harold Zidler. While Christian attempts to interest Satine, the club’s star performer and a courtesan to appear in his show, they fall in love. However, she is being courted by the nefarious and wealthy Duke of Monroth. Heightened melodrama transpires.
As the romantic, tubercular and charismatic Satine, the magnetic Ms. Olivo delivers a ferocious, sensual and grandiose performance that’s one of the most memorable recently seen on Broadway. Her sensational characterization is more Eartha Kitt than Nicole Kidman and all her own. Clad in slinky costumes, the voluptuous Olivo perpetually dazzles. Her titanic singing and dancing is matched by her intense acting which grounds the busy production with riveting focus. Her “Diamonds are Forever” is spellbinding and there’s saucy humor when it’s followed by “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” “Material Girl” and “Single Ladies.”
Youthfully swaggering around in a long coat, a flowing forelock of his blonde hair always on display, with his leading man looks and glorious tenor voice, Aaron Tveit is commanding as Christian. Mr. Tveit offers soaring renditions of “Crazy,” “Rolling in the Deep” and “Roxanne.” As in the film, Tveit and Olivo express their love through beautiful renditions of Elton John’s “Your Song” and David Bowie’s “Heroes.”
Warbling “Minnie the Moocher” is Broadway veteran Danny Burstein who gleefully shines as Harold Zidler. Physically nimble, vocally roaring in a quasi-European accent and often wearing a black top hat and a red tail coat, Mr. Burstein barrels his way throughout with comic force and emotional resonance engaging the audience as the nightclub host and interacting with the other characters.
The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “Gimme Shelter” are chilling exhibitions showcasing the bearded, caddish and lusty Tam Mutu’s dynamic portrayal of the villainous Duke.
Sahr Ngaujah’s vivid turn as the fiery Toulouse-Lautrec includes a smooth “Nature Boy.” Ngaujah leads the electric cast that has pivotal appearances by the playfully smoldering Ricky Rojas as a fellow Bohemian and apache dancer and the luminously hard-edged pixyish blonde-bobbed Robyn Hurder as a proverbial whore with a heart of gold who allies with Santine.
Besides artfully reimagining the film for the stage, John Logan’s shrewd book also slyly incorporates a bounty of familiar songs with panache. One often chuckles or smiles as the opening notes or lyrics of, yet another evergreen is introduced. Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” is matched with Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” to great effect. There’s a delirious medley containing bits of virtually every song with the word love in it. These are all fabulously rendered by Justin Levine’s music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements.
Masterminding this sizzling unison of cinematic and theatrical techniques is director Alex Timbers. Mr. Timbers’ command of stagecraft is supreme. However, the spectacle doesn’t overwhelm the show’s entrancing core of a doomed love affair. Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” is the centerpiece of an Argentinian tango-style number that is but one highlight of Sonya Tayeh’s ever-present kinetic choreography electrically danced by the terrific company.
Channeling the film’s wild costume design is Catherine Zuber’s own sumptuous inspirations. Lighting designer Justin Townsend is in aesthetic overdrive with his magical efforts that further energize the production. Music, effects and dialogue are all finely balanced by Peter Hylenski’s sound design. David Brian Brown’s wig and hair design and Sarah Cimino’s make-up design are integral to the show’s polish.
“Truth! Beauty! Freedom! Love!” are the Bohemian ideals and these are all breathtakingly on display in Moulin Rouge!: The Musical.
Moulin Rouge!: The Musical (open run)
Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-982-2787 or visit http://www.moulinrougemusical.com
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes including one intermission