At the end of the 19th century, when our hopeless romantic lead walks through Montmartre for the first time, all he can see is “dazzling chaos”. That’s what this raucous new production of Moulin Rouge! exudes in spades.
It’s never going to be easy, staging Baz Luhrmann’s iconic musical movie starring consumption-ridden Nicole Kidman and lovelorn Ewan McGregor. But with a half-tonne sculpture of an elephant leering over the audience, a hefty cast and money to burn, this production gives it a good go. 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, most memorably in Elephant Love Medley. The two leads, Satine and Christian, have decided to be secret lovers, and they use the love song mash-up to tease each other. Their joy is tangible as they leap above Parisian rooftops, the backdrop beaming with stars. But almost every other choice is incongruous to the point where we might as well have gone to karaoke instead.
Diamonds Are Forever is mixed with Single Ladies, Seven Nation Army with Toxic. A poignant moment of self-doubt feels farcical as Satine bursts into Katy Perry’s Firework, jolting us sharply out of the story and doing little to drag us back in. This dramaturgy is reminiscent of pantomimes adding in a recent popular song to get the kids on side. Except here, it’s the drunken hen-dos they’re trying to curry favour with.
First performed in Boston in 2018, this production transferred to Broadway, where it won 10 Tony awards. Directed by Alex Timbers, much about the show is sensational. Thick, luscious layers of fabric are draped around the theatre, and the auditorium is bathed in a sexy red light. There are pyrotechnics, glitter cannons, and ebullient ensemble dances. Derek McLane’s design is jaw-dropping, with the carefully carved rooftops of Montmartre giving way to an ancient, dusty artist’s room, a twinkle of the Moulin Rouge spied through gaping windows. These sets barely need actors. They come alive all on their own.
The cast do a wonderful job at animating the frenetic cabaret. Liisi LaFontaine is dazzling as Satine, with Jamie Bogyo charmingly awkward as Christian. Both have stunning voices; that’s true of everyone on the stage. But it’s Jason Pennycooke who gives a standout performance. As the revolutionary artist Toulouse-Lautrec, every move he makes is filled with emotion.
It is a shame that when Lautrec confesses his love for Satine, the script inserts a line suggesting she’d never be interested in him because of his disabilities. Similarly, the show strikes a sour note with its portrayal of Satine’s life as a sex worker. In an otherwise confident character, they inject her with shame and self-disdain for her work, where her movie portrayal is filled with self-assurance. For an establishment that exudes sexual freedom, this seems strangely uptight.
At the Piccadilly theatre, London, until 28 May.