‘Moulin Rouge!’ Review: NYC’s Hottest Nightclub is on Broadway

Karen Olivo and Aaron Tveit in a scene from "Moulin Rouge! The Musical." Matthew Murphy

Who needs ecstasy when we’ve got “Moulin Rouge!”?

That’s the effect of the fabulous new musical that opened Thursday night on Broadway: raucous sensory overload. From its sexy sword swallowers to the newly pumped-up pop songbook and from-the-loins dancing, the show’s as subtle as Liberace’s toy poodle: a glitter bomb on Broadway.

The high begins the instant you walk into the theater, which set designer Derek McLane turned into the sort of uber-cool, members-only nightclub that keeps rejecting my application. Bathed in red light, four sultry, crystal-bedecked performers start singing “Lady Marmalade,” which cancan kicks off the story of a penniless American writer in Paris and his dangerous fling with a cabaret star.

Just don’t show up looking for a Madame Tussauds’ wax replica of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film. Songs such as “El Tango de Roxanne,” “Come What May,” “Your Song” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” are still here, but they’re joined by about 70 party crashers: Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” and Sia’s “Chandelier” among them.

Those energetic new numbers boldly propel the show into the present, and bring giggles every time one is cleverly introduced. The evil Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu) introduces himself by crooning “Sympathy for the Devil,” and there’s a pulse-pounding group dance to “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga. And, by God, it works! The finest show of its kind since “Mamma Mia!,” “Moulin Rouge!” is a reminder that jukebox musicals aren’t required to be soulless behemoth tourist traps. They can be — gasp! — creative.

That said, the story is about a tourist who feels trapped: It’s 1899, and Christian (Aaron Tveit), a songwriter, ditches Lima, Ohio, for Paris, only to find love at the Moulin Rouge, a decadent nightclub that caters to men’s wildest fantasies. The hopeless romantic is there to persuade Satine (Karen Olivo) to perform his new show, but, in a farcical mix-up, she mistakes him for the powerful Duke of Monroth. Still, the two fall madly in love, because falling in love with Tveit ain’t hard.

But love is a battlefield, and Christian is at war with the Duke, a sadistic snob who agrees to subsidize the struggling nightclub if owner Harold Zidler (Danny Burstein) forks over his “Sparkling Diamond,” Satine. She, in turn, must decide between duty and cutie.

Director Alex Timbers’ smartest move is not trying to replicate Luhrmann’s quick-cut sense of humor, which would crash and burn onstage. Instead, he focuses on grandiose emotions, sensuality and the storybook sensation of first love, for which Tveit’s puppy-dog innocence is ideal.

A lyric like “Tonight . . . we are young. So, let’s set the world on fire, we will burn brighter than the sun!” isn’t exactly “Send in the Clowns.” But Tveit sings it with such earnestness that it comes off as meaningful poetry. He’s well matched with Olivo’s regal Satine, who’s more practical and empowered than Nicole Kidman’s incarnation. That Mutu’s Duke is not only filthy rich but hot makes the fight for Satine’s heart much more compelling.

Just what Broadway needed: A “Rouge” awakening.

Author: Johnny Oleksinski

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