In the interests of doing other things with my free time, this review will be written in approximately thirty minutes. Timer starts…now!
Moulin Rouge!, much like its diamond, is all sparkle and little substance.
Starring Liisi LaFontaine, Jamie Bogyo, Clive Carter, Jason Pennycooke, Simon Bailey, Elia Lo Tauro, Sophie Carmen-Jones, Zoe Birkett, Johnny Bishopp, and Timmika Ramsay
The Piccadilly Theatre has been utterly transformed. Right from the off, the audiences are immersed into the sultry, seductive world of the Moulin Rouge. Bathed in the bright, red glow, a fractious, fertile energy clings to the building, transporting viewers within the den of iniquity. Leering, lustful performers lurk within the periphery, hypnotically captivating with their careful, agonisingly slow movements. In the background, an eagerly pulsating, sensual soundtrack crests over the public, weary though they are from typical work malaise, dragging them into murky depths.
Truly, no expense has been spared here. With an enormous elephant looming on one side, and the Moulin Rouge itself on the other, with its own heart-shaped proscenium and the fiercely vibrant “Moulin Rouge” logo suspended above the T-shaped stage, clearly Moulin Rouge! The Musical wants the audience to be agape – spellbound by its sheer spectacle. It’s this sense of aghast wonderment that it seems to build its appeal on, going for a “more is more” attitude, instead of seeking to craft anything with substance behind its glitzy exterior.
Based on Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film Moulin Rouge, Moulin Rouge! The Musical gained a staggering 10 Tony Awards with its Broadway iteration in September 2021. After several delays, the West End version enjoyed its official opening on 20 January 2022. Notable at the time for its anachronistic use of well-known, beloved songs, as well as interpolating and merging songs from disparate genres into beautiful mashups, Moulin Rouge has become almost iconic. As expected of a Luhrmann film, it is tonally distinct, and highly surreal, which fits with the musical vocabulary of the movie. It is worth noting, however, that while it was exciting in 2001 to hear many songs placed together into an exciting medley of hits, shows like Glee have made such mashups fairly commonplace, while musicals such as & Juliet and Mamma Mia succeed in purposefully using pop music to further plot.
The plot of Moulin Rouge the film is fairly thin, following young composer Christian (Jamie Bogyo) as he falls in love with cabaret headliner Satine (Liisi LaFontaine). This union is threatened, however, by the pressure placed upon Satine to keep the Moulin Rouge thriving by placating the Duke de Monroth (Simon Bailey), who is a potential patron, to avoid her substitute family from losing their livelihood.
That description, in fact, probably overstates the dramatic potential of the idea because, truthfully, the plot is over stretched, and no number of energetically choreographed medleys can distract from that, as much as choreographer Sonya Tayeh and director Alex Timbers try. That isn’t to say that Christian and Satine’s love story lacks dramatic potential, as it almost certainly does not, but there is the clear creative decision here to focus more upon the inclusion of more pop songs than it is upon investing in the emotional core of the show.
There is much appeal to Moulin Rouge! The Musical. The set (designed by Derek McLane) is absolutely gorgeous, transforming in an instant and using an array of techniques to achieve the illusion of depth. This is nicely complemented by Justin Townsend’s stunning lighting design, which deftly switches from disarmingly stark to overwhelmingly comforting at a moment’s notice. The quality of the musical arrangements themselves, and the talents involved in successfully interpolating so many songs must be commended, and the choreography is consistently engaging and impressive.
The talent of the performers themselves is also undeniable. Clive Carter is giddily gleeful as Harold Zidler, Simon Bailey is incredibly easy to dislike as the slimy, venomous Duke, and Jamie Bogyo manages to make Christian fairly likeable. Liisi LaFontaine is every inch the star here, perfectly embodying Satine and easily demonstrating the switches as she slips into her diamond persona compared to the layers that lay underneath.
And yet, it almost feels as if the performers are fighting an uphill battle. No room is made within John Logan’s book for emotional consistency or exploration, which seems like a sorely wasted opportunity considering the small hints towards Satine’s tragic backstory. Throughout the show she is made to appear as a paragon of virtue, whilst also existing as a sex worker. One would have thought that in a musical written in current times that there would have been more attempt to give Satine her own voice, but by hiding her behind the words of popular songs, her own originality of thought is lost.
Clearly, the thought is that the appeal of Moulin Rouge! is the audience’s recognition of an endless barrage of popular tunes being hurled in their direction but this decision robs characters of emotional authenticity. The relentless pace of song to song necessitates inconsistent characterisation, to the extent where most of the lyrics are rendered meaningless and the audience might as well be watching karaoke or listening to an iPod.
That’s not to say that there aren’t moments of sheer brilliance. Act 2’s “Chandelier” challenges the audience to reconceive Sia’s well-known song by imbuing it with a pained, aching longing. While Christian desperately reaches for her, a vision of Satine sways just out of reach. There’s a tremendous potency to the juxtaposition of the sentiment of swinging from a chandelier, while it’s also plain that Christian is falling apart. Yet, this sort of angst is not given space to breathe elsewhere in the show.
To use well known songs in many contexts merely serves to make a mockery of Moulin Rouge!‘s own plot. It undermines the characters’ emotions by making them the source of amusement. Satine and Christian attesting “We could have had it all / Rolling In The Deep” does not have emotional resonance because, quite plainly, the phrase “rolling in the deep” doesn’t actually mean anything. It feels silly and the quality of the song itself doesn’t mean that it actually serves a solid narrative purpose.
There are too many moments where the lyrics do not neatly fit the characters’ situations enough to legitimise the use of them, and there are also too many musical numbers which are not included in service of the narrative. The exception to this, however, is the Elephant Love Medley, a hugely important and sweet moment between Christian and Satine which demonstrates the first moment they bond over their contrasting views of love. However, these ideas are not built upon. Christian is shown here to be idealistic, wide-eyed and optimistic, while Satine is guarded and jaded. Yet, Satine’s journey never builds anywhere. She is pulled towards the Duke, yet never explains why, even when she is dying from consumption. She is the glittering central point of the entire show, and yet the narrative never affords her the opportunity to truly get to know her. She feels the most real character of the bunch, though the audience is robbed of her voice. Her character’s journey within the film is defined by her desire to escape the Moulin Rouge, which is what draws her towards Christian, but here her character song is more about the need to remain strong, to the tune of Katy Perry’s “Firework”. The small genuine moments simply do not make up for the huge swathes of the show in which the plot stops in order to watch a musical number.
Ultimately, there is plenty to appreciate about Moulin Rouge!. It does demonstrate, however, that thrusting money in the direction of a project does not necessarily translate into quality. The strength of musical theatre lies within the ability to move people and, while there is a place for flashy set pieces and bombastic choreography, if there is no beating, emotional core, then the whole production ends up feeling rather soulless.