Dear Mr. Timbers: My Thoughts on Moulin Rouge!

Spoiler warning for a 17 year old movie’s plot and the new musical’s music choices.

Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie musical Moulin Rouge! is by all accounts a perfect, though polarizing, movie. The tragic love story of a lovesick poet and a nightclub singer set against the colorful background of fin de siecle Paris is filmed like dozens of mini music videos edited together, and has a vast and eclectic soundtrack of mashups of standards and pop tunes. It’s loud, vibrant, moody, gorgeous, sad, corny, and timeless; a movie you could watch fifty times in a row and notice something new every time. People either love it or they hate it. In short it’s a perfect candidate for making into a big budget Broadway spectacular, and with Alex Timbers, one of my very favorite directors, at the helm it is very close to being perfect popcorn entertainment on a Broadway scale.

The pre-Broadway transfer, now playing at the gorgeously refurbished Emerson Colonial Theatre in Boston until mid-August, is in fine shape indeed. The giant Valentine’s Day chocolate box of a set by Derek McLane and luxurious costumes by Catherine Zuber are aesthetically pleasing and feel like natural extensions of the interior of the theatre. Sonya Tayeh’s choreography is lusty and sensual, and the ensemble pulls it all off breathlessly. The energy of this piece is off the charts. The book by John Logan just needs trimming (the show is nearly three hours long) and maybe some more nods to the movie. The score is expanded from the timelessly anachronistic soundtrack of the movie to add more contemporary pop hits – it has been 17 years since the movie’s release, after all – and the majority of the new tunes work. Justin Levine’s arrangements of the new mashups are superlative, and I can’t wait for the inevitable cast recording so I can hear them over and over again.

The cast is, for the most part, pitch perfect. Karen Olivo takes on Nicole Kidman’s iconic role of Satine, the featured singer at the Moulin Rouge. Where Kidman played Satine as a fun-loving but melancholy waif, Olivo gives Satine more confidence and wears her sex appeal like knight’s armor. Her powerful belt, excellent dance moves, and chemistry with nearly everyone on stage make her Satine a magnetic performance worth investing your emotions into. Her performance of the Diamonds number on a swing that marks her entrance into the club is sparkling, and her take on Katy Perry’s “Firework” (in place of the movie’s delicate “One Day I’ll Fly Away”) makes you forget Katy Perry ever sang the song. My only small quibble with her Satine is that she is so radiantly confident one is never quite convinced she’s dying of consumption until the last moments of the show. The tragedy of the piece feels rushed and unexpected without consistent hints of the sadness to come in the first two thirds of the show.

Sahr Njaugah and Ricky Rojas play the bohemians Toulouse-Lautrec and Santiago so lovably and memorably, you never want them to leave the stage. Njaugah’s Toulouse is far less of a caricature than his movie portrayal, and his soulful rendition of “Nature Boy” is a highlight of the evening.  Rojas is a dynamite dancer, and his numerous dances with Robyn Hurder’s sassy club dancer Nini are nothing short of showstopping – the act two opener that mashes up “Bad Romance,” “Toxic,” “Seven Nation Army,” and “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This” deservedly gets the biggest ovation of the entire show.

Danny Burstein (who still doesn’t have a Tony but absolutely deserves one) is Harold Zidler, the emcee and owner of the Moulin Rouge. He functions as both funny comic relief and emotional voice of reason amongst the characters who work and perform at the club, and in a nice twist from the movie, is openly gay and talks of the boyfriends he’s had in the past. (There’s a fun intentional nod to Great Comet in the script where he mentions his boyfriends’ names as Pierre and Anatole that made me smile really big.) Zidler features in a few group numbers and gets one big solo in act two (Florence and the Machine’s “Shake It Out” as a message of hope to the club dancers) and my biggest wish for him is that he gets more numbers like in the movie – Queen’s “The Show Must Go On” especially, fondly missed while watching the stage version. In another twist from the movie, the Duke of Monroth (who lusts after Satine and plots to buy her and the club from Zidler) is a dashing sleazeball as opposed to a snivelling upper class twit. Tam Mutu plays the Duke as a more realistic villain who can charm with both his looks and his wallet, and you actually worry about whether Satine will choose him or Christian in the story’s big love triangle.

Ah, Christian. The elephant in the room (and not the big decorative one on the side of the proscenium.) In the movie, Ewan McGregor played Christian the Scottish poet as a vulnerable, lovesick optimist who you always want to hug when things get sad. In this new stage version, Christian is an American songwriter transplanted to Paris from Lima, Ohio (which I’m led to believe is a really out-of-place Glee reference,) and is played by heartthrob of thousands Aaron Tveit. This is where my opinion of the show gets controversial: I found Tveit completely bland and unconvincing as Christian, with no chemistry with Karen Olivo whatsoever. Watching him deliver his lines I never fully believed he came to Paris in search of the Bohemian ideals of truth, beauty, freedom, and love. His singing rarely grabbed my attention, except for the iconic “El Tango de Roxanne” in act two – where he nailed the majority of the song until the end, getting extremely flat and pitchy out of nowhere. Tveit tries really hard, and the audience clearly loves him. He’s likeable at times, but mostly I just found him dreadfully miscast. My dream replacement for Christian come the eventual Broadway transfer is Jeremy Jordan, or someone who can play the lovestruck optimist effortlessly and charmingly.

Along with the casting of Christian, my number one wish for the show in between its Boston run and the inevitable New York run is for the big show-within-a-show to be more like the movie. In the movie, the Spectacular Spectacular that the Bohemians and Christian write for Satine and Zidler in an effort to save the club from being bought by the Duke is a big Bollywood-style musical about a courtesan and a sitar player, and the Duke keeps trying to sabotage it as it’s being performed. Clearly under the impression Bollywood doesn’t translate well to the stage, the creatives on the stage version have replaced it with a generic and unmemorable play within a play about a gangster and a sailor and the woman that comes between them, and the Duke doesn’t even attempt to sabotage it – in fact the Duke just disappears for the last fifteen minutes of the musical. The big climactic rendition of “Come What May” is lovely, but the spectacular that’s supposedly built around it is barely there, and was the only time I was ever tempted to check my phone during the show (but I never did. I’m a respectful audience member like that.)

Long story short: all the pieces are in place to make Moulin Rouge! a future Broadway hit, but there’s some things that should change en route to the Main Stem. I had an excellent and entertaining night out, which is what this show excels in, but I found myself missing the mood of the film and the chemistry of its leads.

So is Moulin Rouge! The Musical Spectacular, Spectacular? It quite nearly is.

(Photo by Matthew Murphy.)