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Home Entertainment Review | Pass the absinthe: This ‘Moulin Rouge!’ is a cynical steamroller

Review | Pass the absinthe: This ‘Moulin Rouge!’ is a cynical steamroller


At the start of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” the award-winning extravaganza now at the Kennedy Center Opera House, two showgirl characters do a circus trick — a sword-swallowing act — seeming to ingest the blades until only the hilts are visible, before drawing the weapons out safely. If only the rest of the show pulled off its bold moves with as little damage.

A cynical steamroller of a production, “Moulin Rouge!” does boast spectacular visuals that conjure the eponymous nightclub and Belle Époque Paris. And, as directed by Alex Timbers, the scenes move with sleekly bustling if soulless efficiency. But the jukebox-musical score — including interpretations, samples and mash-ups of songs made famous by the likes of Adele, Beyoncé, and Katy Perry — has a distancing effect. The jukebox musical is a popular genre, but the unusually large number of tunes mined here (some 70 songs, according to the musical’s website) and the brevity of certain excerpts don’t draw us into the characters’ world and hearts as much as invite us to smirk in recognition.

As for spoken dialogue in this musical, which is based on the 2001 movie directed by Baz Luhrmann and features a book by John Logan: Some remarks sound so blunt and dumbed-down as to be laughable.

To be sure, audience reaction at the reviewed performance this week was audibly ecstatic. The murmurs of delight throughout, and cheers at curtain call, might rival Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour. Moreover, “Moulin Rouge!” has an impressive track record, having nabbed 10 Tony awards, including best musical, for the Broadway incarnation that opened in 2019, survived a pandemic shutdown and is still running.

Certainly, this touring iteration dazzles when you first glimpse Derek McLane’s trippy set, with its windmill and cobalt-blue elephant flanking a stage filigreed with heart-shaped frames. This is the Moulin Rouge, where bohemians hobnob with plutocrats, all admiring the sultry headliner named Satine. From her initial appearance as this diva, poised stylishly on a swing — at the beginning of a musical number that mashes up songs including “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” and “Diamonds Are Forever”— actress Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer displays brio and glorious vocals.

Vexed by the club’s sorry finances, impresario Harold Zidler (a droll-enough Austin Durant) hopes for a bailout from Satine’s wealthy admirer, the Duke of Monroth (actor Andrew Brewer copes with this cartoonish character, who repeatedly says things along the lines of “I own you!”). But the plan teeters when Satine falls for a cash-strapped songwriter named Christian (John Cardoza, who sings nicely, but whose physical gestures are conspicuous to the point of amateurishness). Meanwhile, Christian’s pals, Toulouse-Lautrec and Santiago (Nick Rashad Burroughs and Gabe Martínez, both occasionally vivid), figure in what may be the most wooden let’s-put-on-a-show subplot ever.

Catherine Zuber’s gorgeous costumes — brighter colors within the club, more subdued ones beyond, mirroring a scenic contrast — do add flair. And choreographer Sonya Tayeh helps conjure the club’s seedy vibrancy, with dances including steamy speakeasy vamping, tango and — of course, given its association with the real-life Moulin Rouge — the cancan.

The movement sometimes profits from the music’s pumping insistence, as during samplings of the songs “Lady Marmalade” and “Bad Romance.” But the spot-that-tune paradigm is more often fussy and distracting, as well as distancing, like a twiddled radio dial.

Admittedly, a duet in which Satine and Christian ping-pong romantic-song quotations is enjoyably arch. And the lovers’ rendering of “Your Song” (think Elton John) is a rare poignant moment.

Overall, though, in response to the show’s “Lady Marmalade”-flaunting refrain “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” a ready answer is, “Non, merci.”

Moulin Rouge! The Musical, book by John Logan, music by various artists, based on the movie directed by Baz Luhrmann. Directed by Alex Timbers; music supervisor, co-orchestrator, arrangements and additional lyrics, Justin Levine; music director, Andrew Graham; music producer, Matt Stine; lighting design, Justin Townsend; sound, Peter Hylenski. With Nicci Claspell, Chloe Rae Kehm, Kamal Lado, Libby Lloyd, Harper Miles, Andrés Quintero and others. About 2 hours and 40 minutes. Tickets: $45-$199. Through Sept. 24 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. 202-467-4600.


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