Moulin Rouge! The Musical is every bit the “spectacular spectacular” fans have waited for, bursting onto the stage with the same visual splendour and captivating music that made Baz Luhrmann’s film such a hit. Make no mistake, the audience is attending the Moulin Rouge, not the Regent Theatre, with the set spilling out from the stage, conjuring the famous French nightclub in the heart of Melbourne. Performers spill out from the stage too, and it’s well worth taking your seat before showtime to watch as the ensemble slowly, deliberately loll about and casual stun with physical feats. The easy, graceful tempo is a ruse, however, because as soon as the curtain goes up, Moulin Rouge comes at you with guns blazing.
Let’s get this out of the way first: if you’re familiar with the film – and presumably many in the audience are – you’re going to notice a lot of similarities and a lot of differences. The plot is thus; young Christian arrives in Paris, joins the Bohemian movement, and falls in love with the star of the Moulin Rouge, Satine. The love is reciprocated but made more difficult by the fact Satine must court the rich, villainous Duke of Monroth so he’ll save the Moulin Rouge from financial ruin.
Unlike the film, however, Moulin Rouge! The Musical opens with ‘Welcome to the Moulin Rouge’ – the famous medley featuring ‘Lady Marmalade’. It’s a big, bold, saucy number to lead with, and one that is triumphantly performed by the four “lady Ms” – aka Nini, Chocolat, Babydoll and Arabia (Samantha Dodemaide, Ruva Ngwenya, Christopher Scalzo and Kara Sims, understudying for Olivia Vásquez). It takes all your discipline to not join in once the Moulin Rouge’s proprietor, Harold Zidler (Simon Burke), comes on with the Can-can dancers, and entirely justified when a neighbouring audience member softly exclaims “fucking hell” when the pyrotechnics go off.
As Satine, the courtesan and “sparkling diamond” of the Moulin Rouge, Alinta Chidzey is phenomenal, her voice as pristine as the crystal-studded gown and song she enters on. The character is torn between her desire for freedom and love for poor Christian, and her understandably hard pragmatism that has her promised to the wealthy, shallow Duke. The portrayal feels heartbreakingly real – you respect Satine and her choices without pity, even as she tears out her soul singing Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’.
Relative newcomer Des Flanagan has scored a dream role in Christian, who initially seems awkwardly demure. It’s a fleeting impression, however, and as soon as Flanagan opens his mouth to sing there’s no doubt in his ability to carry the role. His rendition of ‘Your Song’ is heart wrenching, but it’s his descent into the temporary, absinthe-instilled insanity of ‘El Tango De Roxanne’ and ‘Crazy Rolling’ that really sees Flanagan shine with tortured grace.
Samantha Dodemaide as Nini “legs in the air” lives up to that moniker, commanding the stage with gymnastic choreography. In another divergence from the source material, the stage musical paints Nini as a far more sympathetic, less spiteful character than her film counterpart. Burke was born to play Harold Zidler. He is completely magnetic, working the crowd like putty and having the time of his life. And as Toulouse-Lautrec, Tim Omaji is an unexpected delight, singing ‘Nature Boy’ with a timbre that feels like you’re floating down a gentle river on a hot summer’s night.
Much of Moulin Rouge’s majesty can be attributed to the opulent set, a work of art from Derek McLane. Hand in hand with Justin Townsend’s lighting design, everything from the cobbled streets of Montmartre to the moonlit rooftops above Paris and the red and gold Moulin Rouge itself is summoned, with impressively dynamic set changes. Catherine Zuber’s costuming is equally awe-inspiring, each gown, each corset more exquisite than the last.
Songs have been swapped in and out from the film’s soundtrack, a move that makes sense given Moulin Rouge is a jukebox musical and it’s been 20 years since the movie was released. Fan favourites like ‘Come What May’ and ‘Elephant Love Medley’ remain alongside new additions from recent pop history, such as Sia’s ‘Chandelier’, Lorde’s ‘Royals’ and Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’ (which utterly slays post-intermission in an intensely sexy number led by Nini and Ryan Gonzalez’s smooth-as-silk Santiago).
Brimming with the Bohemian ideals of truth, beauty, love and freedom, Moulin Rouge! The Musical is the biggest party in Melbourne this summer.