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Review: Moulin Rouge! The Musical North American Tour Sparkles in Chicago Launch

Director Alex Timbers and choreographer Sonya Tayeh helm the production, led by Courtney Reed and Conor Ryan.

Conor Ryan as Christian and Courtney Reed as Satine in the North American tour of Moulin Rouge! The Musical.
(© Matthew Murphy)

I loved the 1952 movie Moulin Rouge, with José Ferrer famously hobbling around on his knees as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Not so much the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film, which shared only the name. It was so disjointed that I had no idea who anyone was or what they were doing, and the frenetic camera work and editing made it seem like a two-hour music video rather than a narrative film.

The live Broadway version had to be better, because theater demands a complete stage picture instead of rapid-cut close-ups of kicking legs and other micro-details. Also, a new book by the estimable John Logan promised greater narrative clarity and — who knows? — maybe even real characters with whom audiences might identify.

The narrative line certainly has been improved in Moulin Rouge! The Musical. Logan clearly had fun giving Luhrmann's characters sharper definition and playing with scores of songs and song titles. In Act 1, for example, when Christian (Conor Ryan) first meets Santiago (Gabe Martinez) and Toulouse-Lautrec (Andre Ward), we hear "The Sound of Music," "All You Need Is Love," and "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing" in half a minute. Logan found places to inject humor — which Luhrmann's film sorely lacked — and to take the pace and volume down a notch, as in Toulouse-Lautrec's lovely Act 2 ballad.

Mostly, however, Logan — a great fan of 19th century theater — only expands upon the clichéd melodrama employed by Lurhmann, both seemingly influenced by Puccini and Cabaret. What they devised (along with director Alex Timbers and musical supervisor Justine Levine) is a juke box opera more than anything else, drawing on 80 musical titles, some heard for just a few seconds. Musical montages coupled with movement montages substitute for real characters with whom audiences might identify. Although fitfully engaging and amusing, it's two-dimensional stuff.

The cast of the North American tour of Moulin Rouge! The Musical.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Moulin Rouge! The Musical will not be everyone's cup of absinthe, but not because it lacks talent, pizzazz, punch, and dazzle. Those musical mash-ups and dance montages do achieve critical mass, so this new national company — launched in Chicago after a month of previews — very much is a musical spectacular equal to the Broadway run. Ryan has a powerful and clarion voice and makes even his biggest high notes sound effortless. Courtney Reed as Satine has the looks, moves, voice, allure, and definitely the stamina to sustain this big song-and-dance role. The supporting players are equally strong, especially the deft delivery and physical comedy of Austin Durant as Moulin Rouge owner Harold Zidler, and the tart Toulouse-Lautrec of Ward. As the Duke of Monroth, the show's antagonist, David Harris (and director Timbers) wisely underplay the character's threatening nature.

The scenic elements (designed by Derek McLane) sparkle as well and are more varied than expected: the layered Victorian valentine club setting, the rooftops of Montmartre, the elegant Champs-Élysées backdrop surrounded by an elaborate picture frame, all well-lit by Justin Townsend, who often favors primary colors to good effect. The wide variety of costumes by Catherine Zuber range from traditional can-can dresses, to pink-and-lavender versions of high society wear, to clingy takes on working-class streetwear, all with a modern edge.

Choreographer Sonya Tayeh, reprising her Broadway work, serves up traditional can-can kicks in Act 1 and a hint of Apache Dance tango (for Santiago and Nini, appealingly played by Martinez and Libby Lloyd) in Act 2. The real dazzle, though, comes with her extended dance montages, which seamlessly blend so many different steps and patterns to match the musical medleys. Especially impressive are the extended opening sequence (which includes the can-can dresses) and the big Act 2 opening. Oddly, however, very little of the dance advances the story. It's a huge part of the show's atmosphere, character and even raison d'etre ... but almost all of it is decorative rather than essential.

Rare for big rock musicals, the sound design by Peter Hylenski is perfectly balanced, with crystal-clear voices and a band that doesn't overwhelm, and in which even the orchestra's two strings could be heard. So, there is a great deal to applaud in this new national company of Moulin Rouge!, and it surely will do very well. But I couldn't help feeling that in this musical less would have been more. Wouldn't fewer songs better serve the characters when all they really need is love? I think so.