There are two exclamation points in the Playbill title of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical!” and this electrifying touring production earns both. Luridly bright sets, racy costumes, melodrama, high-energy talent and a sensational score—seemingly composed of every modern love song ever written—create an intoxicating cocktail that’ll leave you hung over for days.
Denizens of Paris’s nascent Moulin Rouge in 1899 greet the audience before the performance, lurking languidly behind the theatre's neon-lit name, with a red-hued background (designed by Derek McLane) featuring a giant heart and framed by bright stage lights. To the left of the stage is a bulb-festooned windmill (moulin) and to the right an exotic blue elephant. The performers move sinuously to a rhythmic techno beat, staring out at us even as we are captivated by them.
That slow sultriness bursts into kinetic dance energy as club MC Harold Zidler (a compelling Austin Durant) relates how the Moulin Rouge caters to every carnal desire. Choreography by Sonya Tayeh is excellent throughout—including a climactic second-act opening number—all the more impressive because of the constantly changing music, which also keeps busy the full orchestra led by Andrew Graham.
The performers, directed by Alex Timbers, slip easily and commandingly into each new song, which come as delightful surprises every few moments. The pastiche of tunes includes dozens of rock and pop songs from the past 50 years, ranging from the Beatles and Rolling Stones to Katy Perry and Adele, with extended Talking Heads and Elton John takes, and even a snippet of ‘80s Norwegian band A-ha’s grammatically questionable “Take On Me.”
With the music and dance revved up, Zidler introduces the theatre’s “diamond” star Satine (Courtney Reed) as if she were Beyoncé. Though more kitten than tiger, the sprightly Reed captures Satine’s painful background of having subsisted on the streets as Zidler did, and her practical outlook as a result. She is prepared to be courtesan to the Duke (David Harris), as Zidler insists, to secure needed money for the theatre.
However, Satine mistakes the Duke for Christian (Conor Ryan), fresh off the boat from Ohio. Christian’s singing had gotten him immediately adopted by the unconventional Bohemians—Toulouse-Lautrec (a warm André Ward) and artsy yet hunky Argentinian Santiago (Gabe Martínez)—who take him to audition at the Moulin Rouge to sell their new play.
Ryan truly shines as Christian. His strong tenor is infused with feeling, making each note a consistent pleasure to hear, while his movement captures the earnestness of Christian’s wooing of Satine, with whom he has fallen head-over-heels in love—enough to want to simply be her lover on the side while she is with the Duke.
Though the Bohemians’ motto is “truth, beauty, freedom, love,” it’s love that saturates the rest of the story. With its book by John Logan, based on the 2001 film by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce (with Luhrmann also serving as a creative consultant here), “Moulin Rouge!” focuses on the personal rather than political. Instead of a revolutionary tale of the theatre company rebelling against the Duke’s financial stranglehold, the story takes a melodramatic turn into the depths of the Duke’s obsession with Satine, the ironic limits of her survival instincts, and Christian’s desperate love and bids to “save” her.
Like Persephone descending into the underworld, Satine succumbs to the Duke’s increasing imprisonment of her body and spirit. But her defiant statements of how no one controls her (especially resonant now in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade) feel feeble as we see her inability to resist the Duke’s bidding.
Like the hallucinatory green absinthe Christian tries to lose himself in, we are absorbed into a strange world of love versus money. Satine has learned to trade one for the other, Christian thinks love is all you need and the Duke has all the money and therefore all the real power behind Zidler’s lavish Moulin Rouge illusion. Though Toulouse-Lautrec pointedly reminds the Duke during rehearsals of the new play that they are equal under the law, the theatre’s monetary dilemma is never resolved.
But the love situation does reach a conclusion, not in a way anyone expects but transcendently satisfying nonetheless. Dripping with sentiment while bursting with energetic music and dynamic dance on a vibrant stage, “Moulin Rouge!” casts the kind of spell you won’t want to break. Don’t miss it.
“Moulin Rouge! The Musical” continues at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through Sept. 4, with performances Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets range from $39 to $199 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (866) 755-2929 or visiting BroadwayinHollywood.com. Masks are required. Run time is 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission.
This touring production of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” will also perform at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, from Nov. 9 to 27.