Charming. That’s the word I’d best use to describe what Moulin Rouge! has bought to a Sydney crowd that’s absolutely aching for a playful musical following the previous few years. While he’s busy doing the round in Australia right now for his new movie Elvis, Baz Luhrmann has no doubt already been through the Capitol Theatre to see what his colourful vision has been transformed into by show director Alex Timbers and associated director Jacinta John.
It’s a blockbuster for sure. And it would be wrong of me to expect a cohesive show with a compelling story that’s anything beyond standard fare for musicals. Moulin Rouge! isn’t catering for any such chin-stroking theatre critics – Timbers is perfectly content with aligning with Baz’s sense for flair, spilling an ostentatious set that’s filled with pyrotechnics and driven by a penchant for working in surprising radio hits through which to tell this story of secret love, classicism and showbiz politics.
OutKast, Billie Elish, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Sia, David Bowie – so many hits are fed the Moulin Rouge kaleidoscope that it’s hard to keep up with what’s actually unfolding on stage. This is a musical for people who like shiny things rather than pay much attention to any narrative. And while there are many theatre-goers that could be a bad thing, what Moulin Rouge! lacks in cohesiveness, it makes up for it with charm.
Scenic designer Derek McLane and set design associate Isabelle Hudson deserve the most praise here, but so do Catherine Zuber and Janet Hine for working on the dazzling costumes, which shimmy, slide and sparkle in each of the sexed-up scenes. If it was acceptable to do so, many theatre goers would have got up out of their seats and danced as well – this as much as a concert by an operatic cover band, working in clever mash-ups as if a Hot Dub Time Machine were the maestros behind the curtains.
The show opens (and closes) with the famously daring “Lady Marmalade. Everything that’s squashed in between feels like going through the motions just to work in another hit. It can get tiring, and it would if the dance numbers weren’t so dynamic and hard to hate. Each of the performers on stage pulls weight well, aligned like a true team and working hard to justify an Australia-produced musical winning no less than ten Tony Awards.
Some of the numbers don’t quite stick. Katy Perry’s “Firework” is so high it exposes voices that can’t quite catch up with the pop star’s pipes, and that’s just one example of shoehorned pop song that are exciting but badly executed. It’s at these points that the show can feel like colourful karaoke, with songs that aren’t as ingeniously worked into the script as others. The real value in the show then lies with just waiting to see what song comes next as if you were listening to a Triple J Hottest 100 hosted by Kyle & Jackie-O with nothing but pop.
Moulin Rouge sheds its bohemian bent for something a little more mainstream. And really, there’s nothing wrong with that. Especially when Sydney is only now ramping back up to pre-Covid activity and many Sydneysiders are aching for something fun.
Moulin Rouge runs for 2 hours and 35 minutes. The show is currently playing at the Capitol Theatre in Haymarket through to 25th September.
Photo by Michelle Grace Hunder.