After two rounds of press performances were cancelled in December, MOULIN ROUGE finally opened at the West End’s Piccadilly Theatre last week. Not since Hair’s Good Morning Starshine, with lyrics like “dooby ooby walla/ dooby abba dabbaEarly morning singing song”, has a pop musical offered lyrics like those that we hear in the opening number of MOULIN ROUGE, from LaBelle’s Lady Marmalade:
Itchi gitchi ya ya da da
Itchi gitchi ya ya here
Mocha-choca-lata ya ya
But never mind the sense: just allow the sensuousness to wash over you. As with those lyrics, so with the show: it has definitely more style than substance; but it an (over)-stuffed hit parade of bedazzlement and wonder that, after all the deprivations of the last two years, takes you to another world of excess and extravagance. Based on the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film of the same name, its a natural for stage adaptation, since that is its true home.
It’s not really a coincidence that, like the hit revival of CABARET that has already arrived at London’s entirely reconfigured Playhouse Theatre, MOULIN ROUGE is a kind of immersive event. We are not just spectators but part of the action. And just as CABARET flips between presentational numbers being presented inside its Kit Kat Club and scenes and songs portraying the real lives of its denizens, who include Sally Bowles, the flaky English leading performer at the club and a gay American writer Clifford Bradshaw, so MOULIN ROUGE also offers extravagant numbers from the eponymous Parisian nightclub in Montmartre with scenes that chart the hard romantic choices faced by lead singer Satine over her competing suitors — an impoverished American poet called Christian and a rich Duke who seeks to buy and control her.
But I won’t push the comparisons too hard: though they have a lot in common, CABARET and MOULIN ROUGE are chalk and chese(y), the one all grit, the other all glamour. And they get productions to match.
While the original Boston and then Broadway outings of MOULIN ROUGE both took over beautiful theatres — the Colonial and the Hirschfeld where I saw it first in 2018 and 2019, respectively — and integrated their best features with Derek McLane’s design so that you couldn’t tell where the theatre ended and the set began, for its West End premiere it occupies one of London’s most unlovely and previously anonymous auditoria, the Piccadilly, and thrillingly transforms it as (almost) never before (pictured below).
This is a theatre that has flirted previously with make-overs: in 1983, it was transformed into what was billed as “a restaurant-cum-theatre-disco”, for an experience that was called ‘i’.
But it shut down before it even opened — and the show was relaunched, a few months later, now renamed Y. To which many critics simply responded, “WHY?” (You can find out more about it here, from which the above image is borrowed).
MOULIN ROUGE is, finally, the show they were attempting to put on nearly 40 years ago; perhaps i (and y) were simply ahead of their time. It is, like y, essentially a revue; an evening high on excess. Everything is big, bright and shiny — and so are the performances, which are big on energy, but low on subtlety.
Newcomer Jamie Bogyo’s Christian (above right) is talll, handsome but a bit tentative; unlike Aaron Tveit, who originated the role on Broadway, he lacks swagger. I spent much of the time watching the show trying to re-cast the role: perhaps Jamie Muscato or MIchael Xavier might have brought more leading man confidence. Liisi LaFontaine’s Satine (above right) strikes the right notes, in every sense, though it feels like she has to suppress her singing when sharing songs with Bogyo so as not to overpower him..
Veteran Clive Carter shows how to own a stage with total conviction as the club’s host Harold Zidler (the equivalent of the Emcee in CABARET).
If we must have jukebox musicals, then let them be feel-good spectacles that are as stylishly accomplished as this. Director Alex Timbers marshals a creative team that includes stunning costumes from Catherine Zuber and lighting by Justin Townsend that are integral visual components of the overwhelming spectacle; while Justin Levine oversees the astonishing and playful musical mash-up.
MORE REVIEWS OF MOULIN ROUGE
Here are excerpts and links to some of the other reviews that have appeared today:
Daily Telegraph (4*, by Dominic Cavendish): “Magnifique timing: as the curtain rises on a more carefree, post-pandemic period, those restrictions lifted, a restorative big party has got started in high style in the West End, thanks to the theatrical makeover of a cinematic smash….. Recommended, and just right for now, as we seek hedonistic spectacle and a dash of fairy-tale romance. Will it endure? On verra”
WhatsOnStage (4*, by Sarah Compton): “From the second you enter you know what to expect: a musical with a heart of gold that seeks to entertain and overwhelm in equal measure. It is so over the top, it’s irresistible… its sheer razzle-dazzle power makes it a tonic in the dark days of winter…. Everything is designed to thwack the viewer into beguiled submission, and that’s before you take into account its soundtrack – a glorious mashup of just about every song you’ve ever wanted to dance to or sing along with.”
The Times (3*, by Clive Davis): “Just as in Baz Luhrmann’s film, the exclamation mark is a sign of how much the producers want you to have a good time. When he shot his mash-up movie twenty years ago, Luhrmann used hyperactive editing to evoke a Parisian demi-monde where everyone seemed to have overdosed on amphetamines rather than absinthe. in Alex Timbers’s stage version the trick is to throw even more songs at the audience. I lost track in the end — some of the numbers are reduced to soundbites — but the full list adds up to more than 70.”
The Guardian (3*, by Kate Wyver): “There is a lot to love: with a wonderfully wild energy throughout, it’s happily queerer than the film, and the well-known songs really are spectacular.The show’s downfall comes with its attempts to bring the music up to date. The 2002 musical is famous for its jukebox choices, blending genres, styles and cultures. For the stage, the creators have added in a chaotic new playlist of flatly popular songs, from Rick Astley to Lorde. The additions work in a select few cases,.. But almost every other choice is incongruous to the point where we might as well have gone to karaoke instead.”
The iPaper (3*, by Sam Marlowe): “Mon Dieu, but this show is A Lot. It’s pink and blue and red and gold, blindingly lit, every inch of it smothered in sparkles or bedecked in flesh-flashing velvet and fishnet…. Songs are manically mashed up, while a well-drilled company strut, twirl and high-kick their way through Sonya Tayeh’s breathless, crotch-flaunting choreography. Its sexiness is self-conscious and synthetic, its evocation of impoverished bohemia and louche decadence served up as glossy music-video spectacle: slick, sanitised and essentially soulless…. There will be an audience for this, probably Prosecco-fuelled, and it earns their singalong enthusiasm. But it has a big sticky lollipop where its heart should be, and instead of starlight, only sequins.”
Time Out (3*, by Andrzej Lukowski): “The friend who was supposed to come with me to ‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’ dropped out because of a migraine, and honestly, hard relate: director Alex Timbers’s dementedly maximalist ‘remix’ of Baz Luhrmann’s smash 2001 film is pure sensory overload. Frequently I found myself cackling hysterically at it, on my own, for no particularly good reason, other than how *much* it all is…. There is an obvious comparison to be made to & Juliet, the other big millennial pop musical in the West End right now. But ‘& Juliet has a giddy silliness that makes the characters a joy to spend time with. Here they’re just walking plot devices, killing time between songs.It’s a very fun night out, guaranteed to push the buttons of anyone who grew up on ‘Pop World’, 2manyDJs, or indeed, the films of Baz Luhrmann. But for all its tongue-in-cheek chutzpah, when the music stops you’re not left with much.”
Evening Standard (3*, by Nick Curtis): “What a shame. This long-awaited, much-delayed Broadway adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s high-camp 2001 film musical has razzle-dazzle style but precious little substance… I’m sure the name-recognition of Moulin Rouge! will draw an audience. But it seems frankly lazy to piggyback on an established and popular entertainment property, gussy up its best bits, and make its flaws somehow worse.”
The Stage (2*, by Tim Bano): “You can buy caffeine-free Coke Zero. It tastes sweet. It’s fizzy. It comes in a bright red can. But it’s not proper Coke. What’s even in it? It’s just a simulacrum, entirely gestural, without substanceThat is close to the experiences of the stage musical of Moulin Rouge!, despite what the exclamation mark might promise. You don’t even need to scratch beneath the surface to find the lack of depth in this adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s film. It’s a shell of a show, all noise and no signal, instantly crumbling into its own lack of substance…At the heart of the problem is its lack of one. Baz Luhrmann’s film has all the same camp, grandiose, jukebox-plundering excess as the stage show, but somehow it convinces us to fall in love with its characters. This stage adaptation doesn’t.”
THE END OF PLAN B RESTRICTIONS
On Wednesday, Boris Johnson announced that — despite COVID-attributed deaths that day of 359 people and 108,069 new COVID positive cases — it was the right time to drop all Plan B restrictions, including mask wearing in public places and the working from home directive.
He stated, “We will continue to suggest the use of face coverings in enclosed or crowded spaces, particularly when you come into contact with people you don’t normally meet, but we will trust the judgment of the British people and no longer criminalise anyone who chooses not to wear one.”
So we’re back to people using their own discretion — which as we’ve seen in theatres up and down the land, means people simply won’t.
As actor (and theatre usher) Marcus Houden tweeted,
And Simon Albury, former CEO of the Royal Television Society and a regular presence on Twitter, replied to one of my tweets,
Theatre industry figures are welcoming the return to office work: as James Seabright told The Stage,
“Office-based working should really help to grow the weekday audiences for theatres in London and across England”. But, he added, “the reversion to mask-wearing being advised, rather than mandatory, puts theatre staff back into the difficult territory that they were in prior to plan B measures coming into effect, and that could undermine audience confidence.”
Once again, however, theatres could and should take the lead on this, and make compulsory mask wearing a condition of entry. Already the Mayor of London has said that mask wearing should continue on public transport. I’ve cited the example of flying before, too, where mask wearing is a condition of carriage.
But I’m not going to hold my breath that the entirely ineffective leadership of SOLT or UK Theatre will do anything about this.
SEE YOU ON MONDAY
See you in your inbox or here online on Monday. But if you can’t wait that long, you can find me on Twitter @ShentonStage (though not as often on weekends)
The post ShentonSTAGE Daily Newsletter for FRIDAY JANUARY 21 first appeared on Shenton Stage.
‘Just allow the sensuousness to wash over you’: @MoulinMusicalUK & #Cabaret at @kitkatclubldn are both immersing #WestEnd audiences, says @ShentonStage. They have much in common though one is ‘all grit’ & the other ‘all glamour’. #theatrereviews #LondonTheatre