When the first notes of “Lady Marmalade” trill through the Al Hirschfeld Theatre — red dripping from floor to ceiling, the stage crowded with inset hearts — they inspire a palpable sense of déjà vu. A musical based on Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film seems like a foregone conclusion even before it begins, treading a road already paved by legions of similar screen-to-stage adaptations, jukebox confections, and nostalgia-baiting juggernauts.
But the Moulin Rouge! that opened on Broadway tonight resembles nothing so much as an absurdly expensive and utterly exhausting game of dystopian karaoke — on a machine that willfully plays only two to three mega-hits at once, or else spits hooks from dozens of chart-toppers like so much machine-gun fire. Pandering at every turn and tailor-made for what its creators must assume has become the attention-deficit generation, Moulin Rouge! makes a persuasive case for marking the nadir of Broadway’s basest instincts.
While every jukebox score banks in part on audience affection for familiar tunes, the frenetic assemblage of 70 pop songs arranged here by Justin Levine (who’s also credited with music supervision, orchestrations, and additional lyrics) comes at the expense of nearly everything else, including story, character, heart, and often plain old sense.
The plot, such as it is — boy meets courtesan, villain completes love triangle, courtesan dies — may not demand much (and John Logan’s book delivers just as little). But when the closest Karen Olivo’s Satine gets to a statement of character is Katy Perry’s “Firework,” a lack of chemistry between her and Aaron Tveit’s bohemian dilettante can hardly be blamed on the performers. The snippets of pop lyrics that constitute their supposedly red-hot affair were written for radio appeal, long since stripped of meaning or impact through repetition.
The score’s auditory assault of Top 40 faves makes all of the nightclub’s denizens seem more like avatars than real characters, speaking in tongues (Gaga! Britney! The Rolling Stones?) without voices of their own. That several seasoned actors are forced to sing wildly out of their range (Danny Burstein is a treasure, but Sia he’s not) is perhaps cruelest of all.
To translate Luhrmann’s signature celluloid flash and sizzle to the stage, director Alex Timbers deploys ladies of the night (gartered-up and gyrating), confetti (heart-shaped and otherwise), spark fountains (!), and a queen bee’s worth of Valentine doilies to represent… Paris? (Scenic design is by Derek McLane.) A program note detailing the legendary dancehall’s history is the closest Francophiles can expect to nourishment here; the production is French only in the way of stale fries drowned in processed cheese, souring under the glare of too-hot lights.
That Timbers jams all of these sensory flourishes into the opening number alone is the first sign of a production that demonstrates little economy — of spectacle, feeling, humor, or anything that lent the movie its charm. Aside from an overdetermined sign reading “l’amore” in neon, don’t expect much further in the way of visual pageantry. By the time Moulin Rouge! attempts a sharp turn into tragedy (cue the Adele), the lack of blood and soul beneath all that red makes for a dry-eyed demise.
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photos by matthew murphy