"Moulin Rouge! The Musical": Ooh La La!

Karen Olivo & Aaron Tveit in "Moulin Rouge! The Musical"
(photo: Matthew Murphy)

Anticipation was huge from the first announcement that Boston's beloved Colonial Theater, saved from conversion to a student cafeteria, would be totally refurbished and restored to its well-deserved brilliance. The news was coupled with an announcement that its first tenant would be the world premiere of a stage musical production of Moulin Rouge!, based on the 2001 Baz Luhrmann movie that was nominated for Best Picture that year. Mounting a full scale revision would be an enormous challenge, and was preceded by much hoopla and dire predictions that it would never work, considering the source material that was an over-the-top but enjoyable mess.

Danny Burstein in "Moulin Rouge! The Musical"
(photo: Matthew Murphy)

Hoopla La La, the naysayers may rest in peace. Moulin Rouge! The Musical has made the transition from screen to stage with much of its facets (including its titular exclamation point) intact, and quite a few pleasant surprises. As impresario Harold Zidler (Danny Burstein) declares at the start, “Welcome bohemians and aristocrats, boulevardiers and mademoiselles to the Moulin Rouge”, and a spectacular sextravaganza it is. Visually stunning, emotionally stirring and shamelessly entertaining, this is a theatrical marvel that had most of its rapt audience smiling from ear to ear for close to three hours. It's an absolute revelation of what the term sui generis means, a truly one-of-a-kind eccentricity that defies categorization, as though one were witnessing Cirque du Soleil on speed. It's an old cliché but never a truer promise that you have never seen anything quite like it.

After a twenty-minute ingeniously choreographed ( by a wizard named Sonya Tayeh) opener, chock full of allusions to songs of all stripes, we're introduced to American composer Christian (Aaron Tveit) who commences via flashback to tell the story of his arrival in Paris where he finds his one true love, the chanteuse Satine (Karen Olivo), and his encounter with new-found friends struggling painter Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) and dancer/gigolo Santiago (Ricky Rojas) and his current squeeze Nini (Robyn Hurder). Those familiar with the film will recall the sinister role of the Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu) who is also infatuated with Satine and has the money to buy the whole of Moulin Rouge including its star performer. There are several indications along the way that prepare us for what can only be an unhappy end, as Satine's health becomes more and more conspicuously consumptive. There is still so much to take in with all of its visual splendor that we are all just that, taken in.

Karen Olivo, Tam Mutu & Company in "Moulin Rouge! The Musical"
(photo: Matthew Murphy)

Not a few in the audience had their own terminal cases of the “whoop whoops” so prevalent in theater today (and one might snipe at the snippets of songs), but one may easily ignore their robotic ecstasy in favor of one's own enjoyment of a display of talent that is almost overwhelming. Olivo (a Tony winner for “West Side Story”), with not one but two dazzling entrances, is breathtaking, and Tveit (first seen in these parts at North Shore Music Theatre's 2007 “Three Musketeers”) is equally magnetic. Burstein has never been better (and as a six time Tony nominee, this just may be his time), supremely in character even when in darkness. Ngaujah (Tony winner for his title role in Fela!), portrays effectively a suggestion of disability and a heart and soul on full display. Rojas and Hurder provide an seductively amusing subplot and some scorching numbers. There's a dynamo of a trio in Jacqueline B. Arnold, Holly James and Jeigh Madjus. And then there is the entire ensemble of triple-threat singers who can also dance and act, under the complex but eternally focused Direction by Alex Timbers.

Aaron Tveit, Sahr Ngaujah & Ricky Rojas in "Moulin Rouge! The Musical"
(photo: Matthew Murphy)

On a par with the sublime performances are the creative contributions, much of it tongue-in-cheek. While one can't hum the sets, one can surely extol the Scenic Design by Derek McLane. Charming one with its spectacle and its whimsy (as in its amusing depiction of an artist's garret a la Luhrmann's La Boheme, right down to the “L'Amour” neon sign), this is one hell of an eye-opener (as Satine ironically notes about her gaudily opulent elephantine apartment: “it's subtle, I know, but it amuses me”). The Book by John Logan isn't what one would call complicated, but it's overflowing with characters who know how to crack wise. The Music Supervision by Justin Levine is fabulously intricate work. The Lighting Design by Justin Townsend and Sound Design by Peter Hylenski are extraordinary as well. But it's the Costumes by multiple Tony winner Catherine Zuber that may well endure as the production's most unforgettable experience, in sheer numbers, gorgeousness and jaw-dropping awe.
At the end of the show several characters encapsulate what the Moulin Rouge has always meant to them: Truth, Beauty, Freedom, Love. Come to think of it, that could just as aptly be applied, in addition to Moulin Rouge! The Musical, to the joy of theater.

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