Moulin Rouge! The Musical
Piccadilly Theatre, London, until May 28
On the plus side, Moulin Rouge! The Musical is a great big burst of life, colour and wild exuberance and the cast give it everything they’ve got. On the downside, it lacks wit, intelligence, characterisation, and, above all, a soul.
Originally a novel by Pierre La Mure, the story was turned into a relatively demure film by John Huston in the 1950s, when the focus was very much on the artist Toulouse-Lautrec – played by José Ferrer – and the bohemian artistic subculture of Paris in the late 19th century. Half a century on, Baz Luhrmann resurrected it as a high-octane feelgood musical movie, starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. That was mainly intended to show the director still had a pulse after Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet.
The law of diminishing returns has now inevitably kicked in with John Logan’s stage adaptation. Toulouse-Lautrec (Jason Pennycooke) is demoted to no more than a minor comedy turn, bohemian Paris reduced to a great many high-licking ladies in lingerie, and – giving up any attempt to stick to the period – there are random, jarring bursts of Diamonds are Forever, What’s Love Got To Do With It and The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Music.
The focus – to the extent Alex Timbers’ production focuses on anything – is the romance between the titular nightclub’s star performer Satine (Liisi LaFontaine) and Christian, an impecunious artist, played by Jamie Bogyo. Both can belt out a number, but there is no chemistry between them and neither gets any real chance to develop a character. The only reason anyone could possibly know, for instance, that Christian is an artist is because he says he is. When Satine announces she’s dying, neither of the young lovers appears to care two hoots.
As for the show’s looks, Derek McLane, obviously asked to make the stage look opulent and exciting, has done what almost all mediocre modern designers do in such circumstances and reproduced the interior of an Aberdeen Steak House, circa 1970.
For all that, the audience went wild at the end, but I think after so many attempts to put on this show had to be abandoned because of Covid, it was more out of shock that it had finally actually happened.