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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at Al Hirschfeld Theatre


  Ph: Matthew Murphy

“Try to remember your first real love affair,” says Christian (Aaron Tveit), the hero of this lushly staged movie-turned-Broadway-show, a passionate poet from Lima, Ohio, remembering his own lost innocence. But many theatergoers may remember his just as clearly as their own, featured as it was in Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, which famously assembled a fin-de-siècle love story via a pastiche of operatic tropes and pop music to create an uber romance narrative (and soundtrack) for the ages. And though it’s been updated with a smattering of newer songs, this energetic new musical, zestfully directed by Alex Timbers, stays true to the romance at its only slightly jaundiced heart.

Set in the glamorously seedy nightclub that gives the show its name, the musical makes full use of nubile and suggestively dressed dancers who, even before the real action starts, gaze into the audience with a mixture of seduction and aggression. Their come-on is an early tip-off to the transactional hustle that keeps the beloved nightclub – and their livelihoods – going, and the audience is introduced almost immediately to the machinations needed to keep this den of dreams in operation. The Moulin Rouge’s presiding spirit and Master of Ceremonies, Harold Zidler (a fantastic Danny Burstein) is wheeling and dealing to keep the place funded, largely by enlisting the not inconsiderable charms of the adored but almost-over-the-hill star Satine (Karen Olivo) to seduce the wealthy Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutti) into supporting them all. What could go wrong? Well, first of all, against her better judgment, Satine’s unwillingly fallen for Christian. Oh, and then there’s that nasty case of consumption she’s trying to hide….

Olivo has a strong presence (more robust, if less versatile, than Nicole Kidman’s in the movie) and an even stronger voice, while Tveit is masterful at putting across even the most familiar ballad like it’s just sprung straight out of his psyche. But while the romantic leads have talent and charisma to spare, they’re only two of the show’s many attractions. For instance, the two comic characters who introduce Christian to the Moulin Rouge to begin with – Santiago, an irrepressible tango dancer (Ricky Rojas) and the famous painter Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) – and who are hoping to produce a show at the club, but find they’re in need of a songwriter, could be a show in their own right. They give Christian his big break of course, but it also feels like a wink to the audience, since this score features some 70 favorites, ranging from the title number of The Sound of Music and the familiar cancan to Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" and Britney Spears’ "Toxic," and waiting to hear what familiar tune is next to be imaginatively deployed by arranger and orchestrator Justin Levine to underpin John Logan’s book is an entertainment in itself. And that’s not even taking into account the cast’s spectacular dancing, courtesy of choreographer Sonya Tayeh. Then, in another vein, Mutti’s sinister slickness as the Duke, which he uses to insinuate himself into the nightclub, is also riveting – as is his ruthless demand for Satine’s full loyalty as the show approaches its ultimate confrontation.

Despite its love-for-sale cynicism and its begging-to-be-mocked campy plot, this mashup of La Boheme and La Traviata via the last 50 years of pop music has a big mushy heart of gold. The show is literally rose-colored (thanks to the lighting design by Justin Townsend), and the stage set, designed by Derek McLane, is dominated by towering intricately embellished hearts. The corset-clad chorus may croon “voulez-vous couchez avec moi?” but they’re all good kids trying to stay off the streets and pitch in together to keep the only home they’ve ever known.

It’s that sense of camaraderie that ultimately animates this show more than all the flash and flare. That genius really does transcend the generic Frankenstein of a plot and giant jukebox of a score, which just go to prove the universality of the emotions – love, jealousy, joy, despair – that they express and the experience of first love we all go though. Is it profound? Perhaps not – but it’s a shared memory (and soundtrack) we all survive and can celebrate together – in safe retrospect.         


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