In some ways, Baz Luhrmann's exuberant, flashy 2001 film Moulin Rouge was ripe for adaptation for the stage. But as a pre-9/11, postmodern product of an era of experimentation with music in film, and as an ode to the genre chaos of Bollywood movies, it requires some ratcheting back to make sense as a Broadway musical.
That's not to say that the musical, which just opened at the Orpheum in San Francisco in its first national tour, is in any way low-key or disappointingly stripped of Luhrmann's glitz and pomp. Much of that delight and awe is intact in the stage show and at times even augmented by the immediacy of live performance. In place of spinning and tracking upskirt shots of can-can dancers, we have row upon row of chorus members bouncing this way and that across the stage, the flash of neon and an ever-unfolding dollhouse of a set that keeps revealing new and secret chambers, rain showers of glitter, and confetti canons. And, of course, there are live can-can dancers, too.
As Christian, the American in Paris who falls in with a group of bohemians and helps them write a show before falling in love with its star, Conor Ryan brings plenty of infectious energy and goofiness to the role. Much like Ewan McGregor in the film, Ryan gives off an air of youth and fearlessness about looking foolish, and it doesn't hurt that he has a stellar singing voice.
The plot of the show remains essentially similar to the movie, with showgirl Satine (played here by Courtney Reed) accidentally seducing Christian when she's meant to be using her courtesan skills to woo a wealthy duke who has the means to save the struggling nightclub. Satine and Christian fall for each other as they work to produce the show — the plot of which is a thinly veiled version of what they're going through, with a wealthy thief attempting to possess Satine as his own. And it's directed by their friend Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (played with great French gusto by Andre Ward, whom you may recognize from Pose).
As emcee and club owner Harold Zidler, Austin Durant provides the necessary showmanship and verve, leading this large ensemble through much of the nearly breathless medleys of pop songs, appearing here as anachronistic stage numbers from 1899.
The creative team behind Moulin Rouge! The Musical reimagines Luhrmann's 2001 pastiche with a view toward pop hits of the most recent decade — with everything from Lorde's "Royals" to Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" to Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" making appearances in the score. A few key songs from the original, like Elton John's "Your Song," David Bowie's "Nature Boy," and "Lady Marmalade" also figure prominently.
The music, and in particular the ensemble numbers are all incredibly strong — this is a show that is meant to dazzle and it does. From the opening kick-lines to the closing, circus-y curtain call, this cast and this production does not disappoint.
As for the story arc and the romance between Christian and Satine, it seems to recede in ways that it couldn't really in the movie — and Reed's Satine is oddly subdued, especially in contrast to the whirling dervishes around her and the looseness of her dashing leading man.
As the Duke, understudy Adam J. Levy played the role well in the performance I saw, and he provides the necessary musical villain. But Luhrmann's notion of blending musical, comedy, and tragedy in one, sweeping tale feels less like an experiment and more like standard fare in the stage version. Musicals are supposed to have all that emotionality that movies often lack, but knowing what's coming in this storyline, the inevitable loss of Satine to consumption etc., the tragic piece of the plot almost feels tacked on — and soon we're back to the can-canning.
The show could end up proving highly adaptable in revivals down the line — it almost doesn't matter what pop songs you plug in to the medleys, so long as they're about love or romance. But it will always require a set as intricate and gawdy as the one here by Derek McLane, and choreography as frenetic as Sonya Tayeh's.
If only there was a way to cure that consumption and just get on with the show.
Moulin Rouge! The Musical plays through November 6. Find tickets here.