Book by John Logan
Music arranged by Justin Levine
Based on the Twentieth Century Fox motion picture written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
Directed by Alex Timbers
Piccadilly Theatre – open ended run
Well, it’s finally here….and it’s a big fat solid, crowd-pleasing commercial hit. Apart from Cabaret, this was the most eagerly awaited West End musical opening of the last year, although it got off to a rocky start with Covid causing the cancellation of multiple previews then in turn pushing back press night not once but twice. Still, it’s ensconced now at the Piccadilly, probably for the foreseeable future and it’s a true extravaganza, almost completely lacking any restraint (even a tragic death is enacted amidst a shower of glitter dropping from the heavens) but also with very few moments where you’ll be inclined to look at your watch. Put simply, Moulin Rouge is great entertainment.
Or at least it is if you’re after an all-out assault on the senses, and you’re not looking for any kind of subtlety or complexity in your BIG musical night out. Sondheim this ain’t. Hell, it’s not even & Juliet, with which it suffers slightly in comparison: that Max Martin confection is another stunningly designed fantasia set in a European never land that anachronistically uses banging pop tunes to punctuate a tragi-comic romantic plot, but with more endearing characters and considerably more wit.
The Moulin Rouge plot wasn’t exactly demanding in the original movie, and nor is it on stage: boy meets girl then loses girl to dodgy wealthy benefactor and chronic lung disease, in a sort of mash up of Camille, Pygmalion and La Boheme. On screen the story and most of the characters were subservient to Baz Luhrmann’s luridly fanciful visual aesthetic, and so it again proves in director Alex Timber’s opulent, thrillingly OTT theatrical interpretation.
The garishly beautiful design elements here (set by Derek McLane) are key to the shows appeal: entering the Piccadilly’s auditorium now is to be transported into another world, an Aladdin’s cave of louche glamour with undulating swags of scarlet fabric, glittering chandeliers, cherub-festooned gilt, and neon light, complete with a giant blue elephant sculpture and a turning windmill; it’s gorgeous and vaguely unsettling. When the cast appears, Catherine Zuber’s costumes prove to be a similar mix of off-kilter elegance and extravagance, and the whole thing is lit with bravura intensity and invention by Justin Townsend. Make no mistake, this is one of the most head-turningly good-looking productions you’re ever likely to experience.
It’s so head-turning in fact that, at least on a single viewing, it’s almost possible to overlook the lack of chemistry between the two leads or that some of the song choices don’t really suit their allotted place in the story… or that the show as a whole looks a little hemmed-in at the Piccadilly. Anyone who has seen the more lusciously expansive Broadway version is likely to spot this last issue immediately however: Sonya Tayeh’s enthralling, eclectic dances don’t explode across the stage with quite the same fiery abandon that they do on the other side of the Atlantic, although that is certainly not a fault of the gloriously athletic West End ensemble, all of whom work their socks off and some of whom manage to project distinct, individual performances through all the glitz. The act two opening sequence -a feverish, joltingly exciting splice-together of Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’ and Britney’s ‘Toxic’ with a bit of Soft Cell, White Stripes and Eurythmics hurled in- remains an exhilarating, heady stunner: sinuous bodies divebomb centrestage from various directions, in moves that go from jagged to fluid in a matter of seconds, then congregate into a human phalanx of attitude, abandon and potent sexuality. It’s as if Jerome Robbins had lived to choreograph an especially raunchy pop video. Totally breathtaking, this number is almost worth the price of a ticket all by itself.
One aspect of Moulin Rouge London that may actually be better than the Broadway original is in the choice of leading lady. Liisi LaFontaine’s Satine is an absolute knockout. Sexy as hell, with a disarming warmth and satisfyingly steely edge, she fields a belting voice that still finds colours of sweetness and vulnerability, and mines the humour and emotional investment in a role that could so easily be played on one note. Watching her fall in love despite herself is extremely affecting, and her final doomed scenes with Jason Pennycooke’s terrific Toulouse-Lautrec (another improvement on the original) are authentically heartbreaking. Of the four stage Satines that I’ve experienced, she’s the only one who goes on a wholly satisfying journey, and also the only one who convincingly signals the physical frailty of the woman from early on. It’s impossible to take your eyes off her, which is really saying something in a show this spectacular.
Certainly she doesn’t get much competition in the romantic scenes from Jamie Bogyo’s gormless male lead. A decent singer but a stilted actor, at least as directed in this role, recent drama school graduate Bogyo is mystifying casting as ardent young American abroad Christian. He’s quite sweet but it does feel like there’s a bit of a vacuum near where the centre of the show should be. It may be a performance that works really well at close quarters or in the rehearsal room, but at present very little is coming across the footlights.
Clive Carter plays the crowd like the seasoned pro that he is as the MC and club proprietor, but also brings a gritty truth to his off stage scenes: he’s marvellous. So is Elia Lo Tauro’s impassioned Argentinian Bohemian artist.
The frantic melding together of songs from numerous genres and decades of popular music occasionally threatens to get a bit much but Justin Levine’s arrangements truly snap and sparkle. Peter Hylenski’s sound design is rather brilliant, making sure that the lyrics, moods and orchestrations really register and don’t just become so much aural soup, which can be a problem in jukebox musicals.
For eye-poppingly lavish escapism, head to the Piccadilly… the whole may be less than the sum of its parts but you’ll definitely be able to see where your ticket money went. As long as you haven’t got a migraine or a hangover, this showiest of shows is a glittering diamond of entertainment.