‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’: So Chock-full, It’s Bursting at the Seams

Harold Zidler (Robert Petkoff), the master of all masters of ceremonies, welcomes his “chickens” to the Moulin Rouge.

Harold Zidler (Robert Petkoff), the master of all masters of ceremonies, welcomes his “chickens” to the Moulin Rouge.

Wow, just wow! Two and a half hours of nonstop dance, song, and heart-wrenching theatrics retell the classic stories of La Boheme, La Traviata and a few other Greek myths all rolled into one. Moulin Rouge! The Musical has arrived at the Benedum Center with more lights, scenery, scrims, curtains and stage props than any one touring production should be allowed to pack in a truck. Top this budget-busting extravagance with a cast of 30 professional dancers, eight featured voices, and then consider the dozens of artistic directors who helped craft one of the most nominated and TONY Award-winning productions in years. Then be amazed that this one musical review includes more than 70 tunes from the last forty years of American pop hits. It all blows the mind, but it also enraptures a theater-goer into a world swirling with color and lights, rhythm and raucousness, and love and laughter. Moulin Rouge! The Musical packs it all in—perhaps, stuffs it is the better term—because when the trucks and buses unload, the show literally explodes onto the stage. This has to be one of the most expensive tours ever launched from Broadway—its sheer opulence befits the diamonds worn by its star performer—but at what cost? (More on that later.) Moulin Rouge The Musical! is based on the 2001 film by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, directed by Baz Luhrmann, with book by John Logan. It’s onstage at Benedum Center with the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series and continues through October 8.

L’Amore Anachronique!

Toulouse-Lautrec (Nick Rashad Burroughs) and Santiago (Danny Burgos) conspire to write a musical for which they desperately need a songwriter, if not just a musician.

Toulouse-Lautrec (Nick Rashad Burroughs) and Santiago (Gabe Martínez ) conspire to write a musical for which they desperately need a songwriter, if not just a musician.

First, let’s familiarize ourselves with the premise. When a young songwriter from Lima, Ohio, arrives in the Montmartre District of 1900s Paris, he meets the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and an Argentinian dancer, Santiago, with an impossibly longer last name. The two bohemians have a scheme to produce a musical at the famed Moulin Rouge, a cabaret adored by all Parisians for its risqué can-can dancers, as well as its lead chanteuse, Satine. They plot to introduce the young songwriter to Satine who will help them get their show on her stage. The time is the Belle Epoque of France, an era in which the Bohemian class and aristocracy alike enjoyed the debauchery of society reinventing its norms. Which makes the opening scenes of this musical a wonder to behold. Because the conceit is total anachronism. The songwriter, Christian, seemingly knows every American pop song, and he speaks of love and hope and desire as if he were the modern librettist for Cold Day, Adele, Sting or Dolly Parton.

The plot twists from the very beginning. A wealthy Count arrives to meet Satine, the star of the Moulin Rouge. However, she first meets Christian, thinking he is the aristocrat. They fall instantly in love. (Of course.) But when the producer of the Moulin Rouge, that venerable vaudevillian and master-of-ceremonies Harold Zidler, realizes the error, he insists that Satine seduce the Count for his much needed financial assistance. The Moulin Rouge may not survive without it. Truth be known, of course, the Moulin Rouge cannot survive without Satine. And so the story evolves; Zidler and Satine must bow to wealth, knowing otherwise that Satine is truly in love with the lowly songwriter. Meanwhile, Lautrec and Santiago’s new musical must come to fruition while the rivalry between the Count and Christian must come to blows.

The Count (Andrew Brewer), lecherous and greedy, plots his seduction of Satine, the chanteuse of the Moulin Rouge.

The Count (Andrew Brewer), lecherous and greedy, plots his seduction of Satine, the chanteuse of the Moulin Rouge.

Viva La Difference!

For those who enjoyed Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film by the same name, a massive success starring Nichole Kidman and Ewan MacGregor, know that this musical, based on his film, is something different. The plot has changed, but many of the movie’s theme songs––“La Marmalade,” “Roxanne,” Your Song,” and “Come What May”—are still central to this stage adaptation. (“Come What May,” I believe, is one of only two original songs written for the film that were transported to the stage.) Yet, expect so much more. There’s a medley of Rolling Stones tunes, a mash-up of Madonna’s “Material Girl,” Jule Styne’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” and Rihanna’s “Only Girl in the World,” and then there’s the “Elephant Love Medley” which incorporates ten hit songs in less than four minutes. Wow, again, just wow! 

Terrific Talent

The stars of this show deserve equal awe. Satine comes alive, performed by Gabrielle McClinton. A BFA grad from CMU School of Drama, her voice is only outdone by her stage presence. Robert Petkoff plays the Producer/M.C. Zidler. He might have the most fun on stage. Charming, commanding, his voice is a wonder. As Toulouse-Lautrec, Nick Rashad Burroughs is the surprise of the night. He delivers the song “Nature Boy,” a one-time hit for Nat King Cole, David Bowie, and even Frank Sinatra, as if it were his own. And, as the young songwriter, here comes Christian Douglas. (Yes, his real name is Christian.) With more than sufficient credit for regional and touring works, he is destined for his own spotlight on Broadway and attention richly deserved. Pittsburgh theater-goers will be able to say they saw him when.

Again, wow! Moulin Rouge!, The Musical is a package bursting at the seams. But when is too much too much? When does the art of musical theater become so chock full, so all-inclusive (and by reflection, so seemingly self-conscious) that the very promise of escapism it purports turns into something more like a spectator sport? Well, maybe that’s the ideal. Maybe, in a sports town like Pittsburgh, theater, at long last, can rival the Steelers. If “musical theater” be the “sport” of love, play on! PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. 

Adéa Michelle Sessoms and Jennifer Wolfe in the North American Tour of 'Moulin Rouge! The Musical. ' (Photo: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade)

Adéa Michelle Sessoms and Jennifer Wolfe dance in ‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical.’

Photos: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.

C. Prentiss Orr writes about theater for Entertainment Central. He has worked in theater management and has also taught theater. His latest book, The Surveyor and the Silversmith, is a history of white settlement, genocide, and land speculation in Western Pennsylvania.

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