Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
If you like vibrant pop and rock music belted out by a bevy of terrific singing actors like their lives depended on it; if you like dance that turns up the heat in the theater, with long legged extensions and swiveling pelvises making not only the cast but the audience work up a sweat; if you like sets, lights and costumes that boggle the imagination–and look like they cost as much as the entire budget of some central African nations–this show is for you.
It will help if you also like–or at least can abide–a narrative that is simplistic and sappy, albeit delivered in literate form by way of John Logan's book. But let's be real, anyone seeking a probing, complex storyline that sheds new light on the human experience, or documents cultural or historic stories of import is probably not on line to purchase tickets for Moulin Rouge!. There are so many great reasons to see this show, but even this spectacle is not all things to all people. There. That is the last time I will write anything that is not in praise of this terrifically entertaining production.
The stage musical follows the outline of Baz Luhrmann's film Moulin Rouge! pretty closely. The movie arrived in 2001, a jukebox musical–before that phrase had become in common usage–with a host of popular songs, mostly in the rock vernacular but several older tunes that underscore the nostalgia imbedded in the movie. Just a line or two are extracted from many of the songs, and at times characters conduct entire conversations speaking or singing a line of well-known lyrics lifted out of a song.
The story is set at the close of the nineteenth century in the Montmartre district of Paris, and mostly in the fabulous Moulin Rouge nightclub, recognized by the windmill set atop it, its blades illuminated by the exciting innovation that was electricity. To assure us we are in the right place, a replica of said windmill occupies the box seats on the left side of the theater. Not to be overshadowed, the right box seats host a large replica of an elephant–as I said, over the top barely describes it.
You can see how easily the spectacle distracts one from the story, but to continue, Satine is an alluringly beautiful entertainer, Moulin Rouge's star attraction. Together with Harold Zidler, the club's owner, they plot for her to seduce the covetous Duke of Monroth, who is to attend tonight's show in hope of persuading the Duke to invest in the club, which despite its opulent trappings–or perhaps because of then–is on the brink of bankruptcy. On the same day, Christian, a naïve, handsome but penniless young man with a hunger to experience life, arrives from Ohio (he was an Englishman in the film) and heads straight to Montmartre, there to learn from its bohemian habitues. He immediately is befriended by the artist Toulouse-Lautrec and an Argentine tango dancer named Santiago. When they learn that Christian is a songwriter of some talent, his new friends convince him to go tonight to the Moulin Rouge and play his songs for Satine, certain that she will convince Zidler to include them in the show. Later at the club, Satine mistakes Christian for the Duke, and believes it is her (not so unpleasant) duty to seduce this handsome, earnest young man.
You can imagine the complications that ensue from there, as matters only get worse–and if you have seen the movie, you need not imagine. Knowing how it all will end, though, takes little away from the pleasure of watching the story unfold, as it is told in snatches of lyrics, occasionally entire songs, such as Elton John and Bernie Taupin's deeply romantic "Your Song." The storytelling is magnified ten-fold by glorious costumes (designed by Catherine Zuber), elaborate, evocative scenery that makes stunning use of perspective from Derek McLane, Justin Townsend's spectacular lighting, with spotlights cutting like daggers through the passions hanging in the air, and Peter Hylenski's sound design, assuring that the actors' voices are crisp and clean above the ten-piece orchestra. All four of those theater artists–Zuber, McLane, Townsend and Hylenski–took home well-deserved Tony Awards for their efforts.
Conor Ryan epitomizes fresh-faced, youthful exuberance as Christian, the embodiment of an aw-shucks small-town Ohio boy (allowing a more striking contrast with the world-weary Parisians than the English lad in the movie), ready to live by the bohemian creed of devotion to "truth, beauty, freedom and love." Ryan conveys Christian's passion persuasively, and when singing, beautifully fills the halls with the soulful sweetness of Christian's convictions. Courtney Reed, as Satine, knows how to embody star quality, no surprise after she created the role of Princess Jasmine in Disney's Aladdin on Broadway. Her singing, acting and dancing form a fully realized Satine. We see the intelligence beneath Satine's glitter and her conflicted heart, in love with Christian but knowing that her–and ultimately, his–survival depends upon her spurning him.
Harold Zidler, the impresario owner of Moulin Rouge, is a cross between a circus ringmaster and the emcee in Cabaret. Austin Durant gives a wonderful performance as this man who knows he must continue to carry an inflated persona lest he deflate and lose everything. He is funny, devious but good-hearted, charming–his trademark greeting to his dancers, or his audience "Hello, chickens!" never grows tiresome–and beneath the greasepaint, utterly human. The Duke is presented as a sinister character in his efforts to exert ownership over not only the nightclub, but Satine herself. Yet there is a kernel of tragedy in his core as well, for, while his wealth enables him to control Satine's actions, he is painfully aware that it is not enough to control her heart. David Harris captures this contradiction splendidly, while also singing with a beautiful full voice.
As Toulouse-Lautrec, André Ward conveys the melancholy of a man who has seen his best chances of happiness escape his grasp, taking pleasure in delivering to Christian the happiness that eluded him. Ward also has a beautiful voice, especially on a profoundly moving "Nature Boy." Gabe Martinez performs splendidly as Santiago and offers a terrific dance duet with Libby Lloyd as Satine's castmate frenemy, Nini. The entire cast is flawless, including Tamrin Goldberg covering the role of La Chocolat usually played by Harper Miles, and Amy Quanbeck covering the ensemble track usually played by Jenn Stafford, both seamlessly stepping in. Moulin Rouge! has quite possibly the hardest working dance ensemble I have ever seen, and from first light to final curtain they never flag.
All of these moving parts–and move they do, the show never stops for a breath–are coordinated by director Alex Timbers, who makes the extravagance that bathes the eyes and ears an uplifting affair, maintaining a buoyancy that never allows the show to be weighed down by its vast size, tremendously abetted by Sonya Tayeh's choreography. From start to finish, it flows with a sense of inevitability. To underscore that, the performance I attended was halted about twenty-five minutes in, due to a backstage technical difficulty. Up to this point, things had been building nicely from the brash "Lady Marmalade" opening, the audience swept up in the show's relentless pulse. I feared that the delay–it was about fifteen minutes before the show could resume–would break the momentum and make it difficult to be reengaged as I had been when the break began. But, no, as soon as the curtain rose back up, with Satine's big entrance singing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," I was instantly re-riveted, as if an electric switch was turned back on and my circuits relit with no effort on my part.
Big extravaganza's like Moulin Rouge! are not everyone's cup of tea. I get that. But if you have any inclination to enjoy something so imaginative, so beautifully rendered and performed, and so effusively exuberant that you are still smiling about it the next day, this is the golden ticket. You are not likely to see anything that matches its outlandishly generous showmanship again for a very long time.
Moulin Rouge! runs through June 5, 2022, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $59.00 - $149.00. Educator and Student rush tickets, when available, $30.00, cash only, limit of two tickets per ID. For ticket and performance information call 612-339-7007 or visit hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit moulinrougemusical.com/us-tour/home.
Book: John Logan, based on the Twentieth Century Studios motion picture written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce; Director: Alex Timbers; Choreograph: Sonya Tayeh; Scenic Design: Derek McLane; Costume Design: Catherine Zuber; Lighting Design: Justin Townsend; Sound Design: Peter Hylenski; Hair Design: David Brian Brown; Makeup Design: Sarah Cimino; Music Supervisor, Co-Orchestrator, Arrangements and Additional Lyrics: Justin Levine; Music Director and Conductor: Andrew Graham; Orchestrations: Katie Kresek, Charlie Rosen and Matt Stine; Dance Arrangements: Justin Levine and Matt Stine; Music Coordinator: Michael Aarons; Casting: Jim Carnahan and Stephen Kopel; Associate Director: Matt DiCarlo; Associate Choreographer: Camden Gonzales; Associate Music Supervisor: Ted Arthur; Resident Director: Abbey O'Brien; Production Stage Manager: Jeff Norman; Creative Services; Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin.
Cast: Nicci Claspell (Arabia), Austin Durant (Harold Zidler), Tamrin Goldberg (La Chocolat), David Harris (The Duke of Monroth), Libby Lloyd (Nini), Gabe Martinez (Santiago), Andrés Quintero (Baby Doll), Courtney Reed (Satine), Conor Ryan (Christian), André Ward (Toulouse-Lautrec), Sharrod Williams (Pierre). Ensemble: Adrienne Balducci, Andrew Brewer, Jack Cahill-Lemme, Sam J. Cahn, Darius Crenshaw, Alexander Gil Cruz, Alexa De Barr, Alexis Hasbrouck, Jordan Fife Hunt, Justin Keats, Tyler John Logan, Tanisha Moore, Brayden Newby, Kent Overshown, Amy Quanbeck,, Adéa Michelle Sessoms, Jenn Stafford, Travis Ward-Osborne, Jennifer Wolfe, Ricardo A. Zayas.