The dress code for the Brisbane Premiere of Moulin Rouge! The Musical is ‘Spectacular Spectacular’, which is entirely appropriate given what a glorious spectacle the show is in its every aspect. From the moment audience members enter QPAC’s Lyric Theatre, the aesthetic abundance means that there is much to absorb in Derek McLane’s lavish set design, from the balcony level enormous elephant statue and windmill trademark of Paris’ most celebrated cabaret, a cavalcade of overhead chandeliers and pre-show performer provocations as they move about its lush Parisian nightclub staging. And the wonder only elevates in experience of the show proper as the excess of glitz, grandeur and glory transitions into its storyline.
For all of its splendour, this jukebox musical is also a sophisticated show of incredible calibre, not just visually, but in its add to Baz Luhrmann’s revolutionary 2001 film. Capitalising on any associated expectation, things start off with a burst of songs from its eclectic soundtrack as nightclub owner Harold Zidler (Simon Burke) welcomes us to what he says is a state of mind as much as the eponymous legendary nightclub, where all your dreams can come true. Burlesque and can-can dancers perform in colourful costumes, as we are introduced to the Montmarte Quarter of turn of the 20th Century Paris and many of the story’s major characters in an opening number that begins with ‘Lady Marmalade’ and ‘Because We Can’.
After these songs, things move swiftly in a more dynamic musical direction as the forbidden love story progresses through its telling. Penniless American songwriter Christian (Des Flanagan) falls in love with ‘sparkling diamond’ cabaret dancer Satine (Alinta Chidzey) who is in the sights of the failing club’s new investor, a man of wealth and taste, aka the wealthy Duke (a dependable James Bryers) whose support is needed to save the fading nightclub.
The range of tones within the ensuing story is reflected in the many different musical moods and choreographic energy (choreography by Sonya Tayeh) conveyed throughout the show’s 2 hours and 35 minutes’ duration (including interval). Its virtuosic musical mash-up extravaganza features over 70 songs including many of the iconic hits from the film, as well as additions from Beyonce, Bowie, Rhianna, Sia, Lorde … and the list goes on. The incredibly clever combinations see mash-ups of not just one, two or even three songs within numbers, but multiple recognisable snippets even just if as bridge. The inclusions are full of surprise appearances such as when the Duke and Satine sing a mash up of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ and ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, all by The Rolling Stones.
It is mostly through the music that movie moments are updated for a new generation with recontextualisations making the cocktail of popular songs all feel relevant and fresh. Of course, iconic numbers from the film source material make appearance in the form of, amongst others, ‘Your Song’ and ‘Elephant Love Medley’, the latter of which incorporates 19 themed songs. Ultimately, however, it is the gloriously loud and proud ensemble numbers that remain most memorable after the curtain has fallen on an infectiously energetic extended ‘More! More! More!’ encore.
Still, Chidzey’s melancholic solo of Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’, sung by Satine to herself in her dressing room, is a showstopper. Flanagan, too, has his standout vocal moments, such as in Act Two’s ‘Crazy Rolling’ in which, as Christian and Satine prepare for the debut of their show at the Moulin Rouge, they separately sing this medley of Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep and Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy. It is Burke, however, who is the clear crowd favourite as the legendary club impresario. Flirty, faithful and flamboyantly full of energy, he gives his bold character some depth without losing the sense of fun that makes you want him to tell at dirty story at your funeral. His famed ‘Lady M’s’ entertainers, Samantha Dodemaide as Nini, Olivia Vasques as Arabia, Chaska Halliday as La Chocolat and Christopher J Scalzo as Babydoll, all give sexy, but also high energy, performances. And from the moment they first proclaim their ideas of truth, beauty, freedom and love, Jarrod Draper and Ryan Gonzalez all bring the bohemia to the supporting children of the revolution roles of artist Toulouse-Lautrec and dancer Santiago, especially in their early attempts to create a play with songs in it, working with Christian in aim of getting their work produced at the Moulin Rouge.
In the show’s opening number, ‘Welcome to the Moulin Rouge!’, the bohemians sing of ‘Burning Down the House’. And this is what Moulin Rouge! The Musical certainly does, bathing the space with a rich aesthetic tapestry of sexy red. Justin Townsend’s lighting design also works to mood us through the story’s romance and bohemian shades alike, with the cautionary tale of ‘El Tango de Roxanne’ and its foreshadowing tell of a story about a man who falls for a prostitute and gets his heart broken, filling the stage with passionate reds in reflection of the rage and lovesick anguish Christian feels in response to being without Satine.
The show is full of memorable visual imagery, including Satine’s grand, glittering entrance which sees Chidzey descending on a swing in ‘Sparkling Diamonds’, an expanded mashup of ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ and ‘Material Girl, along with ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ and other like-themed songs. Peter Hylenski’s textured sound design also keeps things vibrant in their variety. Justin Levine’s incredible and incredibly inventive arrangements and additional lyrics ensure that everything is woven together cohesively and, despite the eclecticism of the score, the 10-piece band brings it to energetic life under Matthew Carey’s musical direction.
There are also some interesting creative choices contrary to typical expectations of the genre that serve the work well, for example, not ending Act One with a whopping big chorus number and instead returning us from interval with the captivating ‘Backstage Romance’ in which, months later, with rehearsals underway for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and Christian and Satine continuing to see each other behind the scenes, Santiago falls in love with Nini. What starts as a steamy duet between the two, soon morphs into a lively ensemble number medley of 5,6,7,8 brass-filled amplification of ‘Bad Romance’ with a touch of ‘Toxic’ and a ‘Seven Nation Army’ bridge, befitting its extended mid-show applause. The fact that the number features some of the more low-key aesthetics in terms of colour, movement and Catherine Zuber’s costumes, illustrates the substance that exists beneath the musical’s spectacle. And swift costume changes and transitions between backdrops to quickly layered Parisian settings, keep things moving at a pace, in keeping with Alex Timbers controlled direction.
Whether invested in the star-crossed lovers’ characters and their supposedly all-consuming affair or not, there is no denying the marvel of this show, or the worth of the musical’s 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Choreography, Orchestrations, and Scenic, Costume, Lighting and Sound Designs. While John Logan’s book brings out some humour from within the story, it’s really all about the music. The soundtrack is addictive and in conjunction with the stunning set design, it brings a palpable energy to experience of the show’s opulence, making it a must see for musical fans. Get tickets to the immersive decadence of its experience while you can can can though as seats for the Brisbane season are selling fast.