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« Soundtracking: Girlhood | Main | De Laurentiis pt 2: The '60s epics of Dinocittà »
Wednesday
Aug072019

Stage Door: "Moulin Rouge!" on Broadway 

Stage Door is our intermittent theater review column, which might seem odd for a movie site, but we're headquartered in NYC so...

by Nathaniel R

Do you remember the sensation of watching Moulin Rouge! (2001) for the first time? I remember exactly where I was (the much-missed Zeigfeld theater in NYC)  and exactly how it felt as it washed, no, exploded all over me. Twas a dizzying overwhelming sensory experience from the moment the red curtain appeared. Moulin Rouge! (the movie) eventually calms down… or you acclimate to it (I’ve never known definitively which). The moment I gave in fully, convinced it was something emotionally special and not just a flurry of exciting images, was Ewan McGregor’s spontaneous inspirational belting of “The hills are alive… with the sound of music”. The moment the movie belonged to me, and I to it, was the entrance of the Sparkling Diamond herself, Satine (Nicole Kidman) descending on a trapeze to sing “Diamond’s are a Girl’s Best Friend”. 

These moments are dutifully recreated for the new Broadway incarnation. The experience is not quite the same. Some cinematic bliss cannot be easily transferred to a different medium. Nevertheless there’s still green fairy dust sprinkled on this musical. It just takes a bit longer to lift off...

[An important tangent with which we interrupt this review: Given the delayed praise above, I should confess that I had terrible seats. My best friend and I attended after winning the ticket lottery which might sound misleading if you’ve never done any Broadway “lotteries” in NYC --you don’t actually win tickets, just the opportunity to buy tickets at a price that should be the norm. Lottery tickets generally cost between $30 and $40 as opposed to $100+. Sometimes lottery tickets are front row (often not ideal for choreography-heavy musicals but still fun), sometimes balcony (generally better than you'd think for spectacle musicals like this once since taking in the whole stage can be quite rewarding), and sometimes partially obstructed views in the orchestra or boxes (which are far to the sides). Partially obstructed views are the worst… and we had them. In fact, these were literally the worst seats I've ever had for a Broadway musical, in all 20 years of going to them! Most of the time we were not able to see both Satine and Christian at the same time. Other times in what would probably feel festive if you were watching from the center, whole groups of dancers would linger about the sides of the stage to watch the action at the center which effectively blocks even more of your view from the side (as much as 60% was missing from our vantage point in these moments). Side orchestra seats are not worth the ticket prices -- even the lottery prices -- so be warned and purchase the balcony if you're going and the center orchestra is too steep!] 

Because Moulin Rouge! has always been a mash-up mixtape it's difficult to remember in which order the songs came cascading out of the orchestra and actors's mouths but cascade they did, drowning the audience in waves of comedy, drama, silliness, and epic romance. In the sonic sense, the Broadway musical is the equal of the movie, what with trained high caliber voices like Karen Olivo and Aaron Tveit doing all the singing instead of film stars. Kidman, McGregor, Leguizamo, and Broadbent did truly inspired work in the movie but none of them were exactly destined to become song-and-dance legends, otherwise. We're glad the Broadway show didn't attempt any stunt-casting. Stunt-casting is, after all, completely unneccessary when the brand is the draw, which is usually the case with screen-to-stage transfers. 

Satine (Karen Olivo) and Christian (Aaron Tveit) are the doomed lovers.

The most immediately noticeable and welcome change made in the transfer is the music itself. While you hear (most of) the big set-piece numbers the movie leaned hardest on, many of the songs within the medleys have changed. The big setpiece numbers are less beholden to their initial songs than you might think. That's particularly true when it comes to Satine's entrance. Karen Olivo thrills the audience with a whole medley of diamond and come-on songs, several of which hadn't been written when the movie premiered. The famous Gentlemen Prefer Blondes number "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" which the movie used with such highwire success to propose Nicole Kidman as a legendary movie star equal to the immortal Marilyn Monroe, has but a minor role in Satine's introduction. Olivo has more fun deploying her powerhouse pipes on Shirley Bassey's "Diamonds are Forever" and Rihanna's "Diamond," anyway.

Throughout the stage production the lack of reverence for the movie's song choices while staying true to its kaleidoscope musical spirit works like a charm. In fact the highlight of the show is a thrilling rendition of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance," 8 years younger than Moulin Rouge! the movie. What an epically smart choice for this particular 'spectacular spectacular'.

Tolouse, Christian, and Santiago... the Bohemians

Unfortunately the casting is imperfect. Though we saw the show in previews on a two-show day, which might account for it, Karen Olivo and Aaron Tveit both seemed a little tentative and rehearsed rather than bold and stirring in the first act. When intermission came we hadn't yet fallen in love which is a problem for a story of love at (basically) first sight; happily both stars rallied for act two and came on strong, never letting up. Still at least on this particular night their chemistry wasn't what we hoped it would be, given that we're fond of both of them individually. But we were most frustrated with the casting of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The stage version presented a perfect opportunity for a musical production to give a big juicy role to a dwarf (it's not like there aren't dwarfs with great singing voices). Toulouse is played by Sahr Ngaujah, who doesn't read as much shorter than the show's two romantic rivals for Satine's hand. Ngaujah was terrific as the Tony-nominated lead of Fela some years back so this is no knock on his considerable talent but it was an odd choice to cast an abled normal-sized actor as a famously disabled very short painter in 2019. In real life, though Toulouse was not exactly a dwarf, two childhood fractures of his legs and a similar genetic disorder resulted in a dwarf-like appearance. His legs never grew past child-sized and he stood at only 4'9". Since the musical mentions his short stature, this was a rare and missed opportunity to hire a member of that community. (Perhaps we were thinking of this due to the revelation of Ali Stroker in Oklahoma! - who would have ever thought to hire a disabled actress for Ado Annie before someone just went ahead and did it -- but she absolutely earned that Tony and stole the whole damn musical!)

While we're quibbling the way this production's chose to handle the green fairy seemed quite low budget given the obvious money that was otherwise poured into it given the ornate sets,  costumes, and that surely gargantuan music budget for the rights to so many songs, both time-tested classics and new smashes. 

But those few reservations aside, the stage musical works real magic in its second act. It could be that the memory of the movie -- an all time favourite -- kept getting in the way for act one. Many of the changes to the material do feel inspired including casting thirst-trap Tam Mutu as the Duke. Mutu is leading-man sexy which gives the Duke's propositions and possessiveness a more chilling less buffonish complexity.

Danny Burstein as Harold Zidler. If you ever get a chance to see Burstein perform, do not hesitate.

Though it might seem insignificant our favourite detour from the movie's plot was the ditching of 'the Duke is going to kill Christian' red herring. That weird gun and chase scene that followed during the movies show-within-the-show finale is gone. If you're going to shoot something in Moulin Rouge! make it a confetti gun instead. The dependably sensational Danny Burstein fires one twice at the audience with Zidler's entertainer's mania. Once in each act. Confetti guns are the only kind of guns Moulin Rouge! needs. It's quite a party.

A warning to the wise: If you opt to see Moulin Rouge! on Broadway don't be fashionaly late to this party. Arriving late to Broadway shows is NEVER as good idea but in this case arrive early and get settled. Nearly the entire cast -- even Aaron Tveit! -- emerges well before curtain to stroll about the stage, pose, stretch, flirt, and sometimes stare down the audience. Drinking up their beauty and the very sexy costumes is quite an appetizer for the feast to come.

Tony Possibilities? The nominations are nearly a full year away but you can probably expect across the board love. Aaron Tveit and Tam Mutu, two of the hunkiest leading men on Broadway, have never been nominated but could be this year in lead and "featured" respectively, though a lot will depend on what kind of competition other musicals deliver. Regardless of the competition to come, you can surely ink in Karen Olivo (a previous winner) and Danny Burstein (a perennial nominee and wayyy overdue for a win) as Satine and Zidler for Best Actress and Best Featured Actor nominations. Yes, even this early. 

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Reader Comments (13)

I've been hearing that Olivo and Tveit lacked chemistry since the Boston run. Shame since Kidman and McGregor had in spades.

August 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCengiz

"Do you remember the sensation of watching Moulin Rouge! (2001) for the first time? "

oh yes, i'll never forget that migraine...

August 7, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterpar

Saw it in Boston with those two—zero chemistry at all.

The sets are incredible. The pre-show teasing is amazing. It's honestly all downhill once the show starts.

August 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterH

Par - probably from the lack of brain cells.

August 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterReally Now

God, I vividly remember even the very first Moulin Rouge! trailer when Kidman slow sings the immortal “Diamonds...are a girl’s...best...friend...” *chills* “I believe you were expecting me.” “Yes.”

August 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

I assume the one major cast member that doesn't emerge before the curtain is Olive as Satine, right? She surely doesn't let herself be seen until that magnificent entrance!

August 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

Alex -- exactly.

August 7, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Saw it last Saturday and loved it! We saw the matinee on a two show day, and the full cast was there. I think Tveit and Olivo have worked out the chemistry kinks because we didn't notice the lack of it. Danny Burstein steals the show (had the privilege of seeing him in South Pacific years ago). Unless the next Hamilton pops between now and the Tony awards,I think are in good shape to win.

August 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

It looks fabulous but a love story musical does need two lead that have chemistry or no matter how dazzling the show will not work

August 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Will be in NY on the 17th. I’m just appalled at the prices. This show was $300+. Some new play with Jake Gyllenahl was way up there. This really is cost prohibitive for the majority of people. I got tix to Dear Evan Hansen. By the way - I saw “Oklahoma!” In May. Spectacular in a very non-spectacular way. Go see it before it closes.

August 7, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJimmy

Danny Burstein is continually great, and Tveit has my loyalty after being the only cast member in the "Les Mis" movie who gave a performance that was theatrical, but modulated to the film medium (best in show, IMO).

I also agree on hiring an actual dwarf/little person for Toulouse - I'm sure there's a talented person out there who is looking for an opportunity.

August 8, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Moulin Rouge the Musical is a Spectacular Spectacle. Worth every dollar spent to mount it on Broadway, as well as see and be part of the experience.

August 8, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRomy

It's taken Australia a while but they finally introduced layered ticketing prices for theatre and sporting events. The better the seat - the more outrageously expensive it will be. Many years ago I saw a play in Melbourne and the nosebleed seats were the same price as the front row. And there was definitely no discounts if you were in one of the obstructed view seats. Gotta wonder why theatres and sports stadiums are built with a few really bad seats - and they have a nerve to charge people for the experience!!!

August 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBette Streep

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