Review: Moulin Rouge! The Musical Captures the Bombastic Energy and Tragic Love Story of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 Film

Before a certain virus changed everything, I’d gotten into the enviable habit of jetting off to New York whenever a show I really, really wanted to see premiered on Broadway. I flew east to see the original Broadway cast of Hamilton, and I spent a week in the city with two girl friends for the sole purpose of seeing Jeff Daniels in Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In the summer of 2019, I knew I couldn’t wait the years it would take for Moulin Rouge! The Musical, a stage adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s bombastic and lovesick 2001 musical, to make its way to Chicago (a prescient decision on my part, it turns out). So, I first saw this updated jukebox musical nearly three years ago, with Aaron Tveit and Karen Olivo as Christian, a young and optimistic American songwriter, and Satine, the “sparkling diamond” of Paris’s famed cabaret, respectively.

After much delay, including the two years of the pandemic plus return dates bumped at least once after being finally set for early 2022 and a reviewable opening night pushed back two weeks due to breakthrough COVID cases in the cast, I was finally able to see the show again, a production I am more than happy to share is a complete delight, a feast of sensory overload with more to see, hear and soak in than one could possibly manage in a single sitting. Transported to Chicago’s Nederlander Theater (formerly the Oriental and easily Chicago’s most ornate performance venue), Moulin Rouge!‘s bold production design (by Derek McLane) is adjusted only slightly from the Broadway set-up. Gone are the cabaret tables directly in front of the stage, but the massive red windmill and blue elephant taking up residence in the boxes flanking both sides of the theater more than make up for it. An electrified sign declares where you are (the Moulin Rouge, of course) on an open stage where ensemble members wander in the pulsing pre-show soundtrack.

For the uninitiated, Moulin Rouge! is the story of star-crossed lovers with everything from a greedy, lecherous duke to tuberculosis set on keeping them apart. Set in Paris during the Belle Epoque (roughly the late 1800s) at the eponymous and iconic club in Montmartre, Christian and Satine (here played by an overly dopey but ultimately gritty Conor Ryan and Roosevelt University grad Courtney Reed) are the lovers we root for even as we know it will never work out. Harold Zidler (Austin Durant) runs the club and has done so directly into mountains of debt; in order to turn his finances around, Zidler enlists the wealthy Duke of Monroth (David Harris) to finance a new production Christian and his bohemian co-creatives have written. Toulouse-Lautrec (André Ward) and Santiago (Gabe Martinez) are the clever yet principled sidemen to Christian’s doe-eyed innocence, intent on using their new play to show Paris to itself in all its heartache, injustice and tragedy. After all, they’re driven by four pillars of their very existence: truth, beauty, freedom and love.

Among the most memorable aspects of Luhrmann’s film, aside from its hit-a-minute soundtrack, are its smash-cut editing style and breakneck speed, two stylistic choices that aren’t easy (if downright impossible) to translate to a live stage production. And though the show, directed by Alex Timbers, tries its best to mimic this mindset with frenetic lighting (designed by Justin Townsend) and quippy dialog, it never quite matches the same energy. Which isn’t, ultimately, a criticism, as the live stage production more than makes up for this shift in tone with dramatic, sexy choreography (by Sonya Tayeh; keep a particular eye out for the second act opener!) and sweeping sets and costumes that bring this “spectacular spectacular” to life. The soundtrack is updated to the hilt, cramming in every post-2001 pop hit you can think of in order to modernize the show (though your favorites are still there, too), and somehow, it works. Reed’s powerful delivery of Katy Perry’s “Firework” turns a sappy girl-power anthem into a statement piece, and if you’re in the right seats, you’ll be able to see the spit spewing from Ryan’s mouth as he belts out a fierce and vengeful “Rolling in the Deep” (Adele).

If the show slips up at all, it’s in the only creative aspect I haven’t mentioned yet: the acting. Ryan and Reed have an undeniable chemistry (certainly more than Ryan and Reed’s understudy, who I saw at an earlier show), but their individual approaches to their roles, his all goofy, gangly midwesterner and hers a sort of removed ambivalence until all of a sudden she’s deathly ill, never seem to harmonize. Durant, Ward, Harris and Martinez are all perfectly cast and perfectly confident in their supporting roles (though perhaps the Duke should be more skeevy and less sexy?); it’s elsewhere in the supporting cast that suffers. As Nini, Satine’s fellow performer and the show’s principal dancer, Libby Lloyd is captivating…until she delivers lines. But these are quibbles for a show that leans into its spectacle and then some, one that truly delivers on escapism and entertainment, from the first snaps of “Lady Marmalade” to the very last call and response of Zidler’s “Because you can, can, can!”

Moulin Rouge! The Musical is playing through May 14 at the Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St. Tickets are $59-$149 and are available online. Running time is 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission. For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Lisa Trifone