Capitol Theatre, June 4
You don’t just go to see Moulin Rouge!, you enter its world. Within kiss-blowing distance of the stage, the Capitol Theatre is festooned with red swags, silver chandeliers, golden lights, an elephant and the windmill after which the famed Parisian cabaret was named. Even the PA system (which boasts a bass-end like none you’ve heard in musical theatre) is camouflaged as part of the set. Meanwhile members of the ensemble prowl the stage and its extremities, preening and pouting and making the time before the show starts melt away like so much absinth.
It begins with a whip-crack, hip-grinding revisiting of La Belle’s Lady Marmalade, and within minutes the music has already traversed Money, Burning Down the House and Let’s Dance. In fact it all happens at such lightning speed that even your most chronically bored, clock-watching partner will be amazed that the interval comes around so soon.
More importantly, director Alex Timbers’ production beats Baz Luhrmann’s film. If there’s no stage equivalent to the movie’s ricochet editing, there certainly is to Catherine Martin’s original design elements (now courtesy of Derek McLane and Catherine Zuber) and to the crazed jukebox of songs. John Logan’s book thickens the story (which needed help), fleshes out the characters and has some highly amusing mash-ups of lyrics and dialogue. The song-choice has expanded (not always for the better), now reaching from Lorde to The Rolling Stones), the singing and choreography are improved and Justin Townsend’s lighting sometimes borders on the mind-blowing.
The show also intensifies Luhrmann’s eccentric music-video melange of styles, with self-conscious artiness sliding into bed beside melodrama, comedy and dance extravaganzas. The switch is also unexpectedly flicked to fleeting heartfelt moments (reaching beyond love to fading youth) and (much more than in the film) to soft-core erotica. In fact it’s convenient that Moulin Rouge! and Mary Poppins should be playing in town at the same time. Both feature fabulous designs and improve upon their filmic iterations, but where Mary Poppins will hold its greatest appeal for the pre-puberty set, the sexiness of Moulin Rouge! should tempt an older crowd.
While this production is a revamp of the Broadway show, its ties to Australia run deep. Not only did Luhrmann make the film in Sydney, but the production company that helped hatch the Broadway show, Global Creatures, is Australian. Now it’s peopled with locals, too: Alinta Chidzey lends Satine all the glamour she needs to justify half the cast being in love with her, and Des Flanagan plays Christian (the only one whose passion is reciprocated) well enough, although some notes at the top of his range have an unruly timbre.
Standing out as both an actor and a stage presence is the indefatigable Simon Burke as Harold Zidler, the club owner. Andrew Cook is suitably wicked and lustful as the Duke, and Tim Omaji’s Toulouse-Lautrec lends a sense of the primacy of art in a world otherwise populated by whores, pimps, thieves, charlatans, grotesques and theatricals. Ryan Gonzalez is an especially convincing Santiago, and Samantha Dodemaide is even better as Nini, with their shared tango sequence easily being the highlight of Sonya Tayeh’s exceptional choreography.
So many of the design elements are noteworthy, but especially redolent is the pink “L’Amour” sign harking back to the set for Luhrmann’s Opera Australia production of La Boheme 32 years ago. The cultural-referencing wheel doesn’t just keep turning, it spins and fizzes like a Catherine wheel.