Call it an amuse-bouche, these two barely dressed women facing each other at center stage as, ever so gingerly, they swallow swords and, equally gingerly, disgorge them. They’re surrounded by iconography meant to place us in the midnight swirl of fin de sie`cle Paree: Up there, in the boxes at audience left is a model of the Moulin Rouge itself, the Red Mill, its blades revolving in hypnotic slo-mo.
Opposite, an almost life-size elephant snakes its trunk down toward the swells in the orchestra. You don’t need a sugar-cubed dose of absinthe to enter the world of Moulin Rouge! The Musical, which opened tonight at the Al Hirschfeld. It’s trippy enough without any need of wormwood augmentation.
Onstage, the sinuous swordswomen are surrounded by ladies in bustiers and garters, and satyr-men in tails and horns or evening wear made louche with angled bowlers and fat cigars, or, alternatively, leather jock straps. Framing them all (the gorgeously opulent sets are by Derek McLane) are filigreed hearts, hearts, hearts receding, like a giant version of those pop-up cards sold on street corners along Fifth Avenue. Even the trim along the balcony has been recast in shimmery relief, punched out in a leitmotif of little windmills and grinning cherubs. Immersive theater, indeed.
After close to three hours I stumbled out of that fanciful world feeling somewhat pummeled by the heightened visual and aural, not to mention emotional, assault. Yet I woke up the next morning in love with the show. There’s genius in that, I think.
Speaking of heart, director Alex Timbers, the most ingenious spectacle-maker working in the theater today, has given Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film a thumping theatrical heart, and, start to finish, the blood pressure will rise. To call it a jukebox musical is to miss the point (even though, to be sure, the score offers a pleasurable tour through a century of popular music, from Georges Bizet to David Byrne, Jules Styne to Sting and Sia). Nostalgia provides the torque of jukebox shows. The subtler goal of this extravagantly outfitted adaptation is to explode the contrivances of melodrama in order for us to experience them anew. It wears its asynchronic ’tude like a Hello! badge. It just may take you a few hours to see that.
We are in bohemian Paris and its most famous club, home of the can-can and hangout for artistes and arrivistes, hipsters and hustlers. The action is overseen by Harold Zidler (Danny Burstein, who appears to be having the time of his life), the owner and MC, ringmaster and, at opening, on the verge of bankruptcy. The club’s future hangs on successful matchmaking between his sultry star, the cabaret courtesan Satine (Karen Olivo, as dark and mysterious as Nicole Kidman was light and open in the film) and the Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu), a lascivious moneybags.
Satine makes her club entrance descending from the flies on a swing (of course she does) after the rest of the chorus have strutted their formidable stuff through “Lady Marmalade” and a limber can-can (the superb choreography, which echoes the show’s pastiche with homages to dance-hall styles) is by Sonya Tayeh. (Catherine Zuber’s costumes are especially eye-popping here; these wildly colorful ruffles have riches.) Satine rouses the crowd with “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
The planned assignation in Satine’s elephant-themed dressing room is, however, delayed by the arrival of Christian (Aaron Tveit, perfect in the Ewan McGregor role), a hungry American who has come to Montmartre in search of his literary voice and found comradeship with writer and artist Toulouse-Lautrec (the excellent Sahr Ngaujah; John Leguizamo played him memorably in the film) and tango dancer Santiago (Ricky Rojas, brilliant). Seeing Satine, Christian is instantly lovestruck and thenceforth unable to open his mouth without singing Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Your Song.”
What ensues, via John Logan’s book, based on the Luhrmann/Craig Pearce screenplay, is a freewheeling mashup of Dumas fils, Puccini and their dramatic and musical progeny, up to and including Jonathan Larson. This isn’t merely a wrinkle in time, but a gleeful tearing of time’s fabric. References to Dereon jeans coexist with “The Sound of Music” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The song credits alone take up two pages in the program.
Does Moulin Rouge! sometimes feel like a hip justification for ogling physically gifted troupers in various states of near-dress? Sure. Does the female star’s first muffled cough into a bloodied handkerchief foreshadow the inevitable? In the words of Robert Mueller, “Yes.” Does the sheer scale of the event almost wipe out the possibility of human connection, both among the players and between them and us? Well, as I said, I had to sleep on it.
Other standouts in the company include Robyn Hurder as Nini, Jeigh Madjus as Baby Doll, and Bahiyah Hibah as La Chocolat. But the fine Mutu is miscast as the Duke. He lacks the menace vibe, while his oddly reticent delivery makes cringeworthy the show’s sole musical misstep when he greets Satine with “Sympathy for the Devil” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” This is one mashup where the Rolling Stones don’t belong.
A $28 million toss of the dice from the same folks who gave us the soon-to-depart $36 million King Kong flop, Moulin Rouge is a blithe but masterful merging of Broadway razzle-dazzle and giddy subversion. Director Timbers (Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson; Here Lies Love and the under-appreciated Beetlejuice) has reimagined the film in purely, exuberantly theatrical terms. That’s why it’s more successful than so many film-to-Broadway adaptations. Others may reach that conclusion faster than I did.