_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
at _PICCADILLY THEATRE.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _23rd JUN.

January 21, 2022
images © Johan Persson.

‘Moulin Rouge is more than a musical… it is a state of mind,’ so chimes the marketing for this, the long-awaited London stage adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 cinema bricolage. It’s a bold – audacious, even – claim, suggesting the experience on offer here offers some transcendence beyond your usual West End jolly, but then again Rouge has never courted convention.

As mission statements go, it’s one handsomely met by Derek McLane and Justin Townsend’s transformation of the Piccadilly into an eye-wateringly sumptuous Parisian glory, immediately throwing audiences into its unique, wonderfully unsubtle brand of Bohemian decadence. Every nook and cranny tells a story, from populated bars stall-side where pre-show courtesans languish seductively, to an enormous ephigy of the film’s iconic ‘blue elephant’ and, of course, the landmark’s signature, a fully operational windmill. Keep an eye out, too; cast members WILL pop out from this; several stories up or not.

“A magnificent, opulent, tremendous, stupendous, gargantuan, bedazzlement, a sensual ravishment.”

Harold Zidler (as voiced here by Jim Broadbent in the original film) would certainly approve.

That nebulous ‘state of mind’ is clearly set.

Perhaps more flabbergasting, then, is that the show that follows not only manages to uphold the initial ‘wow’ factor of those stunning first impressions, but somehow offers something that can actually unironically be labelled as transcendent.

“Somehow offers something that can actually unironically be labelled as transcendent.”

It’s far from the most nuanced or stuffily highbrow of evenings, for sure, but by the time your jaw is brushing confetti and sparkles off of the floor after being blown square out of place by a contemporary, full-thrusted take on Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’, it will scarcely matter. You’ll be too mystified by Liisi LaFontaine’s soaring vocals as she morphs ‘Firework’ into a triumphant belter of determinism and empowerment to question whether or not your vision of the show included any Katy Perry.

Baz Luhrmann’s film outing to the Moulin Rouge was not the first time the iconic cabaret hall has been committed to celluloid. John Huston‘s similarly Oscar-winning version, starring Zsa Zsa Gabor & José Ferrer, came almost five decades earlier, and wasn’t even the first ‘Rouge’ film.

Were it not already clear, Moulin Rouge on stage is more ‘heavily inspired’ by its filmic predecessor than it is a one-to-one transition. And that’s perfectly understandable. Preferable, even; Luhrmann’s original was a postmodern explosion of originality, anything too derivative and familiar would have felt strangely off-brand.

Still, the central tale of doomed love and theatrical stomping within the halls of the historic cabaret house remains relatively untouched. Christian (Jamie Bogyo, in a truly impressive debut) is still an aspiring writer who falls in with a spirited crew, led by Toulouse-Lautrec (Jason Pennycooke as one of Rouge’s few actual historic figures however loosely modelled). So too does he fall for the ‘Sparkling Diamond’, Satine (LaFontaine), headline act at Harold Zidler’s (West End legend Clive Carter) titular playhouse. Unfortunately for both, she’s already promised to Simon Bailey’s ruthless Duke, who ends up with far more leverage over the ‘Rouge’ and its denizens than the young lovers ought trifle with.

Throw in a few gleefully farcical cases of mistaken identity and crossed purposes, and you have all the ingredients and set up for a dazzling, dangerous, dramatic ‘spectacular, spectacular!’.

Baz Luhrmann’s film outing to the Moulin Rouge was not the first time the iconic cabaret hall has been committed to celluloid. John Huston‘s similarly Oscar-winning version, starring Zsa Zsa Gabor & José Ferrer, came almost five decades earlier, and wasn’t even the first ‘Rouge’ film.

Film purists will likely bemoan some of the chops to both plot and number; Satine and Christian’s romance in particular feels as though it could do with a little extra breathing room here, and there’ll never not be a world where I long for what Carter and LaFontaine’s take on ‘The Show Must Go On’ could have been. But for the most part, the key numbers – including signature power number ‘Come What May’, glorious as ever – are intact, and a lot of the narrative and character work done are notable betterments.

“It’s only with comparative hindsight that Nicole Kidman’s work in the original film is a little plagued with victimhood. Here, Satine is festooned with agency.”

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary is Satine herself. It’s only with comparative hindsight that Nicole Kidman’s (admittedly beautiful) work with the character in the original film is a little plagued with victimhood. Here, she is festooned with agency. Whereas in the original, Satine unconvincingly shows no comprehension of the wider implications of a mysterious affliction occasionally crippling her performances, here she actively seeks out medical attention and takes subsequent matters into her own hands (her film counterpart being blindsided by Zidler telling her late on). Similarly, where the film depicts her as a victim of manhandling and even attempted rape, saved only at the last second by her towering male co-star, on stage in the very same scene Satine once again makes the decisions, calls the shots and controls the narrative and decidedly does not allow herself to get rag dolled.

And when it all begins to come crashing down, our heroine doesn’t simply go along with proceedings because there’s little point doing otherwise (sorry, Nicole); rather, she repeatedly insists ‘the show will go on’ as a testimony to Christian’s talent, and because she truly wants his work to be seen and heard, irrespective of her own fate.

It marries well with the show’s handling of the Duke, too. Whereas Richard Roxburgh’s heightened flourishes in the film bandy between high camp and sinister psychosis, Bailey’s antagonist is a far more measured affair. He exudes menace and sophistication from the off, a smooth yet ruthless operator, and the calm certainty and presence that Bailey brings to role makes his enviable offers and opportunities all the more enticing, and the potential impact he has over our two lovers all the more impacting.

None of which is to say the other core cast are overlooked or somehow underplayed. Bogyo is, as mentioned, a stellar leading man, and be it the giddy heights of the ‘Elephant Love Medley’ or the soul-tearing anguish of ‘El Tango De Roxanne’, he charts Christian’s journey powerfully and impeccably. Clive Carter is expectedly wonderful as an animated, whirlwind Zidler – and in the show making him outwardly at least bisexual, a lot of the character’s potentially more misogynistic tones toward his courtesans get washed away. Jason Pennycooke continues an impeccable run on the West End boards (Memphis, Guys & Dolls and Hamilton being recent, Olivier-nominated turns) and is a revelation as Lautrec, regularly snatching scenes with a turn equal parts jubilant, hilarious and moving.

In truth, though, wherever you throw your glance, there is excellence on show in Moulin Rouge. Good luck peeling your attention away from the scintillation and talents of Zoe Birkett, Johnny Bishop, Sophie Carmen Jones and Timmika Ramsay, even after they’ve finished knocking your socks off with a truly bombastic and crowd-pleasing ‘Lady Marmalade’ opener. Sonya Tayeh’s choreography is razor sharp, slick and positively dripping with sensuality and character. The opulence of the auditorium is more than met by sets and staging that are frequently breathtaking, whilst Catherine Zuber’s costumes are arguably the biggest stars of the show.

“In truth, wherever you throw your glance, there is excellence on show in Moulin Rouge.”

Relinquish your expectations and attachments to every minutiae of the movie that so many have come to know and love. Two decades on, and this is a new Moulin Rouge experience. There’s enough in it to recognise and love from what has come before – green fairies and absinthe included – but it also charts itself a new, equally fresh and unconventional course, and coupled with the immediacy of the stage, the invention and creativity on show is frequently awe-inspiring.

Will it be for everyone? As per the film, perhaps not, but it is, measure for measure, the most stunning thing on the West End right now, and a truly incomparable, must-see experience.

So, is Moulin Rouge, after all is said and done, ‘more than a musical… a state of mind’?

Chances are, your mind will simply be too blown to decide.

Decadent, bravura and utterly gorgeous, ‘Rouge’ is rarely anything less than ‘spectacular, spectacular’. Viva La Bohème. The West End’s new gem is a sparkling diamond, indeed.


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