I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited to see a show as I was Moulin Rouge! The musical is, of course, based on the Baz Luhrmann film of the same name – which is set at the real-life Moulin Rouge. The musical’s media night was actually exactly half a year (25 weeks to the day) after I visited the Moulin Rouge. Poetic, right? But whilst the real Moulin Rouge (and its resident stage show, Féerie) is overpriced and overhyped, the musical is, quite possibly, the most spectacular show I’ve ever seen – and I saw 120 shows just last year!
Set in 1890s Paris, the musical follows a young American songwriter, Christian (Jamie Muscato), who falls in love with the Moulin Rouge’s star attraction, Satine (Melissa James) – who is also subject to the desire of the dangerous Duke de Monroth (Ben Richards). The Moulin Rouge is ran by the camptastic and unashamedly homosexual Harold Zidler.
Jamie Muscato, a West End star who originated the role of J.D. in the first UK production of Heathers, is one of the most mesmerising male performers I’ve ever seen. He’s a real tour de force. Christian’s character development is quite drastic, and Muscato delivers.
I have seen Melissa James onstage three times before – first, in Wise Children, and later in Gypsy (twice). She played troubled showgirls in both (the titular Gypsy Rose Lee in the latter) so I knew she’d excel at playing Satine, but she somehow exceeded my expectations. She is mesmerising from the moment she arrives onstage (or, rather, is brought down from the heavens) and makes you feel every single emotion she feels over the course of the show.
Matt Rixon (who starred in the original cast of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) is fabulous as Zidler. His ability to quickly switch from fun and supportive to mad and threatening is remarkable. Whilst the Duke is a less developed and more two-dimensional than the other characters, TV star Ben Richards brings a dark, sexual energy to the role that enchants the audience.
But the real star of the show is the production value…
Moulin Rouge! is an experience for the senses as soon as you arrive. The theatre’s exterior is emblazoned with two huge “Moulin Rouge!” logos, each firing red light into the night sky. The foyer, which is surprisingly small and intimate, has a feature wall of Moulin Rouge! merchandise and memorabilia. But nothing prepares you for the visual feast you encounter when you enter the auditorium.
The auditorium, which is cloaked in a thick red light, is the most finely decorated I’ve ever seen. Chandeliers and drapes hang from the ceiling, lights twinkle in all corners, and the boxes feature a scaled-down version of the Moulin Rouge’s iconic windmill and a life-sized elephant model (I’m not kidding). Moulin Rouge! is not just a show; it’s an experience – before the show even begins.
The stage musical, like the original film, is a jukebox musical, featuring famous songs from years gone by, most of them in medleys. The stage adaptation uses songs from the original film as well as hits released in the two decades since the film was released. With most numbers being medleys, we are treated to scores and scores of famous songs, each of them placed masterfully.
A few of the songs are a little predictable (e.g. Britney Spears‘ ‘Toxic’ and Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’). Such songs are so overplayed and generic that they have become hollow, devoid of feeling and emotion. But they are also fun, feel-good and nostalgic so I understand why they were chosen.
Whilst a few of the newer songs feel a little out-of-place, the cast roll with it and deliver soaring renditions. Some of the cheesy songs arouse laughter in the audience. ‘Why are they singing Rick Astley?’, you wonder. But even they help carry the story, believe it or not.
The musicals opens with ‘Welcome to the Moulin Rouge’, a medley which begins with ‘Lady Marmalade’ – the fabulous Labelle song that Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mýa and P!nk covered for the film’s soundtrack – and it even features a can-can (the real-life Moulin Rouge’s most iconic performance).
The opening number is rivalled with ‘Satine’s Entrance’ (when we finally meet the musical’s leading lady), ‘In the Elephant: Elephant Love Medley’ (the 20-song medley that closes the first act), and ‘Rehearsal’ (the opening number of the second act which brings the rested audience right back into the action).
Whilst they are some of the highlights, every single scene is remarkable. I cannot fathom how the production manages to fit all that set backstage and above. It is very much a movie brought to life – every scene, a new setting. Locations include the auditorium of the Moulin Rouge, Christian’s artsy apartment, the bohemian streets of Montmartre, and even the inside of the elephant! It’s the best production value I’ve ever seen, even ahead of Disney musicals (such as Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast).
Whilst characterising Moulin Rouge! as “style over substance” would be grossly unfair, there is definitely a prioritisation of the former. The disjointed book, and its at-times hoary emotional core, does not have the depth of some of Broadway’s other great musicals, but the tragic ending still had me in tears. Thank goodness that there is one last upbeat megamix at the end to bring the mood back up!
The book could be stronger but no musical can be everything. Even Hamilton – the most successful and acclaimed musical of the modern era – has some problems. Moulin Rouge! is not perfect but it delivers on what it ought to deliver: spectacle. From the sumptuous set designs and the outlandish costumes to the striking choreography, and even the splendid use of lighting, Moulin Rouge! is a real feast for the eyes. Even if it’s not the best musical I’ve seen (how do you even measure such a thing?), it is probably my favourite.
Moulin Rouge! is currently booking until June 3 at the Piccadilly Theatre.