The first thing that knocks you out is the theatre itself. The stage is covered in glistening and glowing reds and features a series of heart-shaped receding proscenium panels, designed by Derek McLane. Lithe dancers writhe in a cage in the stage left box, underneath a giant statue of an elephant, while the stage right box is covered by a giant rotating windmill, recreating the one outside the actual Moulin Rouge nightclub in Paris. Ramps extend into the auditorium; Satine, the star of the cabaret, makes her first entrance flown in from the top of the stage sitting on a trapeze bar.
The magnificently restored Colonial Theatre in Boston (now operated by the Ambassador Theatre Group), with its bright gold-leaf finishes, is part of the magic. You can’t really tell where the set stops and the theatre begins.
When the show itself starts, a cascade of pop hits from the 1940s (Edith Piaf’s La Vie en Rose) to the present day (including ones made famous by Adele, Seal, Sia, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Beyonce and Lorde) come flooding at you. Some, as in the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film this show is based on, are packaged in mash-up medleys; others are presented in stand-alone set-pieces. Given the show’s sizzling cabaret atmosphere, many are purely presentational, designed to knock your socks off – and they regularly do, thanks to the aggressively physical choreography of Sonya Tayeh and the drilled dancers that execute it. I could feel the ghosts of Michael Bennett and Bob Fosse, who created so many of their great musicals in this very theatre, nodding their approval.
But the great skill of director Alex Timbers and his book writer John Logan, adapting Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s original screenplay, is to fold other songs brilliantly into the narrative, which follows impoverished American composer Christian who vies for the affections of Satine with rich aristocrat the Duke of Monroth.
If we must have jukebox musicals, I only wish they were all as vivacious and utterly exhilarating as this. Moulin Rouge feels operatic in the high stakes it sets up; Luhrmann’s own version of Puccini’s La Boheme was a Tony winning Broadway hit in 2002, and this has a similar vibe.
The polish with which it is all executed makes for a breathtaking spectacle. Thanks to gorgeous performances from Karen Olivo and Aaron Tveit as the unhappy lovers, it also has a heartbreaking human dimension, which echoes La Boheme in its tragic inevitability. Tveit lends an astonishing, impassioned rock roar of a voice to tear into Sting’s Roxanne; Olivo has a sultry grace but also immense vocals as she tears into a medley that includes Diamonds Are Forever, Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, Material Girl and Single Ladies. A huge ensemble features stand-out turns from Danny Burstein as the club’s MC and Tam Mutu as the aristocratic rival.
Although a Broadway transfer is yet to be announced, it is a certainty, as is that this show is going to be a massive hit.