Thursday, 25 November 2021

Theatre review: Moulin Rouge!

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: This is one of those Broadway-style long preview periods, with the official press being invited in on the 8th of December.

I often get songs stuck in my head when I look at what shows are coming up in my diary, and lately I've just been hearing "Moulin Rouge! Aha! Take it now or leave it, now is all we get, nothing promised no regrets!" Which is ironic, because that's more or less the only song from the last 150 years not to make its way into John Logan's jukebox musical, which puts the much-loved Baz Luhrmann film on stage with a few twists on the soundtrack. The original Moulin Rouge! gave Bohemian 19th century Paris and the titular burlesque club a doomed love story set to incongruous, anachronistic music that mainly consisted of relatively recent pop hits, and Logan's stage version does the same: Many of the most popular numbers from the film remain (so it opens with an energetic "Lady Marmalade" from the club's chorus girls,) but it's been 20 years since the original, so a lot of newer hits also get a look-in.

Next it's a love triangle between Satine (Liisi LaFontaine,) the star turn, Christian (Jamie Bogyo,) the penniless American songwriter who's trying to get a show put on at the Moulin Rouge, and the man Satine is meant to be seducing, the Duke (Simon Bailey,) whose patronage could save the club, or sink it if he's not happy.

Both the original and this version sell themselves as a spectacular and that's what Alex Timbers's production delivers: The Piccadilly Theatre, which has had some improvements made to the auditorium during the pandemic (I can't speak for the other levels but the seats in the Grand Circle have been completely replaced, which has improved the sightlines; one would hope the collapsing ceiling has also been looked at,) has also been transformed by Derek McLane's expansive set design, which together with Catherine Zuber's costumes and Justin Townsend's lighting really give the audience their money's worth. It's a level of high camp that's echoed in the show itself, which doesn't take itself remotely seriously. Christian's sidekicks Toulouse Lautrec (Jason Pennycooke, really staking his claim to all the West End's comedy French accent roles,) and Argentinian dancer Santiago (Elia Lo Tauro) are the often scene-stealing comic relief in the narrative scenes.

But much of the humour comes from the music choices: The show is made up almost entirely of medleys and mash-ups, with some of the dozens of pop songs that crop up barely lasting a couple of lines*. Moulin Rouge! falls into the category of jukebox musicals that absolutely embrace the ridiculousness of trying to get an existing song into an unrelated narrative, and the amound of times the tune changes mid-number only means more opportunities for laughs at how audaciously Logan's crowbarred some of the songs in, sometimes to fit a tenuous theme (so Satine's introduced with a jewellery-themed number that goes from "Diamonds are Forever," via "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" and "Single Ladies" to Rihanna's "Shine Bright Like Anne Diamond.") Personally one of my biggest laughs came at the end of the first act, when a medley that literally takes in twenty songs and has seen Satine try to deny any interest in Christian, suddenly has her enthusiastically join in with "I Will Always Love You."†

LaFontaine and Bogyo's voices go well together without one overpowering the other, but I can't say I was ever the least bit emotionally involved in their story, or in fact any of the characters, despite the sightlines and design making it easy to feel connected to the stage even from a distance‡. Arguably this is pretty low down the list of the production's concerns, and with spectacle, comedy and high camp the priority, the love story is little more than a hook to hang everything else on. Still, with Satine's rare case of Period Drama Indigestion developing into the more common, and much deadlier Period Drama Cough, I'd have hoped for at least a little bit of an emotional hit.

I think the reasons for this disconnect were clarified for me a bit in the second act, when the theatre manager Zidler (Clive Carter) gets his big number, singing "Chandelier" during the absinthe scenes: The mash-ups are the show's USP and the source of its energy, but the songs are also the heart of a musical, and jumping so quickly from one to another doesn't give much scope to engage with it. In the first act only "Your Song" played out in full, but in the second as well as "Chandelier" "Bad Romance," "Rolling in the Deep" and the film's big original number "Come What May" get more of a chance to breathe before something else crashes into them. It does add a bit of that depth that the show had been missing, and as a result Moulin Rouge! might not hit every mark it might have done, but it does end up providing a spectacle that isn't entirely hollow. Plus, it succeeds in recreating the appeal of the original film without just half-heartedly recreating every familiar beat, which in this kind of big crowd-pleaser isn't always a guarantee.

Moulin Rouge! by John Logan, Bob Crewe, Kenny Nolan, Andre Benjamin, Antwan Patton, David Sheats, Janie Bradford, Berry Gordy, David Bowie, David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, Tina Weymouth, Fatboy Slim, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Paula Cole, Sting, Mike Stock, Matt Aitken, Pete Waterman, Ella Yelich-O'Connor, Joel Little, Marc Bolan, Jack Antonoff,  Jeff Bhasker, Andrew Dost, Nathaniel Ruess, John Barry, Don Black, Jule Styne, Leo Robin, Peter Brown, Robert Rans, Beyoncé Knowles, Christopher "Tricky" Stewart, Terius "The-Dream" Nash, Thaddis Harrell, Sia Furler, Benjamin Levin, Mikkel S. Eriksen, Tor Erik Hermansen, Ben Berger, Eli Maiman, Ryan McMahon, Nicholas Petricca, Kevin Ray, Sean Waugaman, Your Mum, P!nk, Max Martin, Johan Schuster, George Merrill, Shannon Rubicam, Katy Perry, Sandy Wilhelm, Ester Dean, Elton John, Bernie Taupin, Marguerite Monnot, Georges Moustaki, Édith Piaf, Louiguy, Marguerite Monnot, Georges Bizet, Jacques Offenbach, Hector Crémieux, Ludovic Halévy, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, eden ahbez, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Terry McBride, Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr, Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore, George David Weiss, Gwen Stefani, Eric Stefani, Donna Lewis, Bob Dylan, Boudleaux Bryant, Mike Chapman, Holly Knight, Freddie Mercury, Ben Gibbard, Jimmy Tamborello, Scott Cutler, Anne Preven, Phil Thornalley, Magne Furuholmen, Morten Harket, Pål Waaktaar, Regina Spektor, Terry Britten, Graham Lyle, Buzz Cason, Mac Gayden, Jack Nitzsche, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Will Jennings, Dolly Parton, Stefani Germanotta, Tilly, Tom, Tiny, Nadir Khayat, Ed Cobb, Jack White, Cathy Dennis, Christian Karlsson, Pontus Winnberg, Henrik Jonback, Annie Lennox, David A. Stewart, David Baerwald, Kevin Gilbert, Crystal Johnson, Jesse Shatkin, Mariano Mores, Brian Burton, Thomas Callaway, Gian Franco Reverberi, Gian Piero Reverberi, Adele Adkins, Paul Epworth, Cab Calloway, Irving Mills, Clarence Gaskill, Jo Callis, Philip Oakey and Philip Adrian Wright, based on the film by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, is booking until the 28th of May at the Piccadilly Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Matt Crockett.

*Phill wondered if it was a bit like YouTube music rights, and if you don't go over a certain amount of seconds you can play a song without paying for it

†Christian riding the Eiffel Tower is definitely also... a moment

‡sightlines really do make such a difference; we were in the last-but-one row of the whole theatre, but the new seating's sightlines mean I felt a lot less disconnect from the action than in Strictly Ballroom or Crack Whore: The Musical in the same theatre. Seeing all the action rather than just what you can make out around the person in front's head really does make a difference

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