Moulin Rouge! The Musical

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Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Photo credit: Matt Crockett

If you’ve seen Moulin Rouge! The Musical and loved it, I’d advise you to read no further – this is not going to be pleasant. Pretty much as soon as the film came out in 2001, people were clamouring for a stage version so they could visit Baz Lurhmann’s fantastical Moulin Rouge club for real, and see the story played out in front of their very eyes. It was made for the theatre. But sometimes you should just leave things alone.

For those who haven’t seen it, the basic story sees penniless composer Christian arrive in Paris from Ohio (yes, he’s now American – very Clifford Bradshaw, huh?) and join a pair of bohemians who are struggling to write a theatrical masterpiece. They take him to the Moulin Rouge club to meet famous courtesan Satine, in the hope that she’ll convince its owner Harold Zidler to host the show at his club. Satine, however, is due to meet a rich duke who could be tempted into saving the Moulin Rouge from its financial woes. Needless to say, there is a mix-up: Christian & Satine inconveniently fall in love. What could possibly go wrong?

John Logan wrote the adaptation, and it’s clear from the moment they start talking that there’s a completely new voice behind it. I don’t even need to compare it with the original here, as it’s not great by any standards; it’s the usual issue of the book being neglected, thinking all the audience care about is the music. I can forgive that a certain amount if it’s all original compositions, but not in a jukebox musical – it screams complacency. And it makes me angry on behalf of the writers & composers working on completely original shows, whose shows are often of a higher all-round quality but don’t get the backing because the story is an unknown quantity.

The songs from the film form the backbone of the musical side, but things have got very out of hand. Very few standalone songs exist, instead the medley/mash-up idea (used sparingly in the film, most memorably in the Elephant Love Medley) has been employed so often that the effect is completely diluted. I did wonder if certain songs were dropped because it cost too much for the rights (Smells Like Teen Spirit leaves a gaping hole, for me), but given that over 70 songs feature in one way or another, I’d conclude this was most likely a creative choice. Another bad one, if so. Again, I could draw this conclusion without ever seeing the film. It’s way too busy and there’s no room to breathe – plus it extends the running time well beyond acceptability. How are the cast supposed to convey any true emotion when they’re basically doing a chart run-down?

Incorporating a selection of more up-to-date songs is fine, as it caters to another generation & people of varying tastes; it adds to the show in some respects (Chandelier fits well with Christian drowning his sorrows, for example), but a lot of the time it detracts from the rest of it – the Backstage Romance medley spoils the effect of El Tango de Roxanne, and the Adele breakup moment becomes almost inevitable. I feel it necessary to point out that the film enjoyed success & popularity without relying quite so heavily on contemporary pop.

In short, it’s completely lost its charm. Some of the tweaks to the story simply aren’t believable (Christian’s final actions are, ahem, mind-blowing), and so many of the songs are played for laughs or with tongue firmly in cheek that the audience can’t respond appropriately when it becomes more serious. I found myself wondering if Jennifer Marsden (creator of Knights of the Rose) had any involvement behind-the-scenes during the show’s development.

Despite doing their best to build up the Duke’s part throughout the show – perhaps a bit too much, but I like the idea – he seems to be completely brushed aside at the very end. Either his reaction is visible only to people sat in the stalls (if so, someone remind director Alex Timbers to cater for the entire auditorium), or Logan has forgotten the threats he wrote a few pages before this in the script – it’s poor either way, another oversight in the storytelling.

Derek McLane is to be applauded for the scenic design, as both the auditorium and the stage are genuinely spectacular; it’s lit up to within an inch of its life, and both the windmill & Satine’s elephant are constant presences off to the side. Catherine Zuber’s costume design is also magnificent, and everything you’d expect from a show such as this.

With such a mess of a show, I really do feel for the company; they do their best to try and elevate it. Jamie Bogyo makes a confident professional debut as Christian, and Tanisha Spring (on as alternate when I saw it) puts her own stamp on Satine opposite him. Simon Bailey’s Duke is suitably dastardly & charismatic, but for me Jason Pennycooke is the standout as Toulouse-Lautrec. He is moving when he talks about his unrequited love, and displays great comic timing when a bit of clowning is in order – plus he still knows how to milk an audience.

Christian & his friends want to uphold the bohemian ideals of freedom, beauty, truth & love in their show – it’s a shame this approach wasn’t taken by Logan in his adaptation. A triumph of style over substance. Go to Cabaret instead.

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Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Photo credit: Matt Crockett

My verdict? A charmless adaptation of the popular film – all style, no substance.

Rating: 2*


Moulin Rouge! The Musical runs at the Piccadilly Theatre until 23 July 2022. Tickets are available online.

4 thoughts on “Moulin Rouge! The Musical

  1. I watched the show last night, 15/10/22, at the piccadily theatre, London.
    I totally disagree with your verdict.
    I loved the film, and my expectations of the show were high. It soon became apparent the show was not the same. Things change, move with the times. How refreshing it was. The standing ovation halfway through to the lady Ga Ga song and at the end was one of the longest I have witnessed. I thoroughly enjoyed the show and would definitely go back again.

    Like

    1. I’m really glad you enjoyed yourself (with the average ticket price for the show that is obviously the ideal outcome!) and that it lived up to your expectations – trust me, it’s no fun being part of an audience that big if you’re having the polar opposite experience to basically everyone else in the building. If you read my review in its entirety, I did say that changing up some of the songs is not a bad idea at all – my issue was that there were just far too many of them, and the story suffered as a result. The book is all too often an after-thought in jukebox musicals, which is frustrating as it should be just as important as the music. I can guarantee that I would have had the same reaction even if I’d gone in with no prior knowledge or affection for the film, as these are things I consistently criticise shows for. It’s just not my cup of tea.

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