WHAT “Moulin Rouge! The Musical”
WHERE Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 W. 45th St.
INFO From $99; 877-250-2929, ticketmaster.com
BOTTOM LINE An exuberant extravaganza of pop hits set in turn-of-the-20th-century Paris.
“Give ‘em the old razzle dazzle,” they sing in the long-running musical “Chicago,” playing four blocks uptown from “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.” “How can they see with sequins in their eyes?“
That song isn’t among the 70 in “Moulin Rouge!,” the extravagant exercise in overload at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. But it should be, considering how perfectly it presents the conundrum of this theatrical adaptation of the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film: high-voltage spectacle or operatic tragedy?
As pure spectacle, the highly hyped production with ticket prices venturing into “Hamilton” territory is a smash. Before a note is sung, the audience is swept up in the surroundings. The theater has been transformed by scenic designer Derek McLane into the famed Parisian nightclub, all red velvet and crystal chandeliers, the iconic windmill on one side, a humongous elephant on the other.
Like the movie, popular songs are the conduit for telling the story. Presented in an overwhelming onslaught of production numbers with seductive choreography by Sonya Tayeh, many are done in clever mashups that keep the audience anticipating the next musical twist. Really, who would have thought to mix “Lady Marmalade” with Cab Calloway’s “Hi-De-Ho”? Or the classic “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” with Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies”? With 18 years between movie and musical, music supervisor Justin Levine added to the film’s best songs (Elton John’s “Your Song” remains a highlight) with more current hits from the likes of Adele, OutKast, Sia and Katy Perry, along with the requisite Offenbach (hey, you can’t do fin de siècle Paris without a cancan).
The magnitude of all this diminishes the tragedy, its own mashup of the opera “La Traviata” and the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Despite the efforts of writer John Logan and director Alex Timbers, the emotional devastation of the film is somewhat lacking in the tale of American writer Christian (a perfectly cast Aaron Tveit), who lands at the fabled nightclub where he’s drawn to the mysterious courtesan Satine (Karen Olivo, in command of the music if not the image of a frail woman dying of consumption). Other standouts in the strong cast include Danny Burstein as impresario Harold Zidler and Sahr Ngaujah as the artist Toulouse-Lautrec (his “Nature Boy” is stunning).
Fans of the movie may bristle at the tacked-on ending that rehashes the best songs minutes after the heroine slips away in her lover’s arms, but I’m giving the show a pass on that front. Quibble all you want about dramatic impact: When the second act opens with an extended, amped-up version of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” it’s possible to forgive almost anything.