When Moulin Rouge The Musical opened on Broadway in 2019, it was an instant hit, picking up ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical. An announcement that the musical would hit the West End shortly followed, but thanks to the pandemic it’s taken until now for the spectacle to arrive at The Piccadilly Theatre, under the direction of Alex Timbers.
Perhaps the positive reaction from the US, and the lengthier than expected wait has built up a certain level of anticipation, because this West End production of Moulin Rouge The Musical certainly looks the part, but fails to deliver in several key aspects.
The stage production is based on Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie, another big success at the box office. For the transition to the stage, the book is reworked by John Logan, making some slight tweaks to the original story and swapping out some of the older pop tunes for newer ones.
Whether you agree with the term or not, this is ostensibly a jukebox musical; the story of Christian and Satine, the composer and cabaret star who must conduct their love affair in secret to save the Moulin Rouge from certain closure, plays second (or even third) fiddle to an almost overwhelming onslaught of pop tunes.
Where &Juliet does a fantastic job of making well known hits feel like they had been written specifically for a musical, Moulin Rouge does not. At least seventy songs are squeezed in, from Beyoncé to Sia and Katy Perry to Queen, it feels like every chart topper from the last two decades and beyond has been found a spot. Don’t expect to hear the full songs though, usually it’s just a line or a chorus, often being sung simultaneously with a completely different number.
Thankfully this mix and match approach prevents too long a running time, but it doesn’t always sound great. Chandelier, for example is an excruciating listen, and at times, it’s like a group of your friends have got drunk, decided to sing karaoke, and in the absence of consensus over what to sing, are each singing their own favourite over the top of each other. Sometimes it works, often it doesn’t.
What definitely does work is Derek McLane’s set design and staging. The Piccadilly theatre has been transformed into a lavish and lush Parisian night club, with Justin Townsend’s lighting design creating a sense of seductive beauty throughout the entire auditorium. The huge and extravagant sets are visually stunning and it’s clear no expense has been spared to create this sense of sumptuous extravagance.
It’s also a large cast, with a superb ensemble who make the most of engaging the audience. Liisi LaFontaine as Satine lifts the roof on several occasions, with some very impressive vocals, and a heartfelt delivery of the role.
Jamie Bogyo is equally impressive in a stunning West End debut. Bogyo’s portrayal of the young love struck composer Christian is very endearing and will leave you saying ‘Ewan who?’.
The sheer number of instantly recognisable pop classics propping up Moulin Rouge The Musical will ensure that it’s a hit with audiences, although it does become a little tougher to enjoy them as the story continues to take ever darker turns. But these pop tunes and lavish sets just barely disguise a thin and uninteresting plot.
Moulin Rouge The Musical will make for a fantastic night out for most audiences, mainly because there’s just so much to catch your eye, and plenty of recognisable songs. A fantastically staged musical that’s more about the spectacle than the substance.