AUGUST 16, 2018, BOSTON – The crown jewel of Boston boasts a new luster. Closed for two years, the Emerson Colonial Theatre is showcasing the pre-Broadway tryout of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” an adaptation of the splashy Baz Luhrmann film and a celebration of the title Paris nightclub.
Is the show version too glitzy for its own good? Likely to dazzle a Broadway audience as much as its Hub one, “MR!” stays true to the signature charms of this enduring French hot spot. If the John Logan book needs tightening, the Colonial world premiere proves as inviting as the Toulouse-Lautrec poster that first advertised the Montmartre landmark.
The show is being presented by the Ambassador Theatre Group through Sunday, Aug. 19.
Like the 2001 film, “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” is as evocative in its own way as the superior 1930s Berlin-set “Cabaret.” Admittedly “MR!” – with Toulouse-Lautrec briefly reminding the villainous Duke of Monroth that France remained a republic – lacks the latter’s pre-Holocaust momentousness. At the same time, “MR!” depends on hits from the likes of the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Adele, and Lady Gaga.
Curiously, both the Tony Award-winning revival of “Cabaret” and “MR!” feature an extended showplace. The Berlin Kit Kat Club establishes a decadent ambience even before the opening “Wilkommen” number in “Cabaret.” Partly bare club performers on side areas of Moulin Rouge contrast with aristocrats in formal wear – kudos to Catherine Zuber’s richly varied costumes.
In both musicals, some audience members sit at small cabaret tables. A stage right red windmill in Derek McClane’s vivid scenic design connects with the meaning of “Moulin Rouge” – French for “red mill” – and two elephant images – one large and looming stage left and another surrounding club songstress-courtesan Satine’s dressing room – have different desired effects. A beautiful high-rising homage to Toulouse-Lautrec’s arts makes this critic hope that the show will add some moments showing the painter and his work at his simple residence.
Initially, Moulin Rouge proprietor Harold Zidler seems to usher in patrons to his club à la the beckoning MC in “Cabaret.” Six-time Tony nominee Danny Burstein (most recently for his fine effort as Tevye in a revival of “Fiddler on the Roof”) has the right combination of histrionics and elusiveness as Zidler speaks of patrons’ fantasies. A strong singer, he delivers the impresario’s solo “Shake It Up” by Florence and the Machine with crisp phrasing and ample energy. Talented Broadway director Alex Timber would do well to give him more opportunities to sing and give full vocal expression to Zidler’s concern for ailing Satine and his struggle to keep the Moulin Rouge viable.
By contrast, Karen Olivo has good opportunity to belt as Satine. The big-voiced Tony Award winner (a tenacious Anita in a recent revival of “West Side Story”) demonstrates real presence from the start as she enters on a swing – think of Pink at a recent Grammy Awards.
She shares sweet romantic stretches with Aaron Tveit as Christian – notably a heartfelt love duet. Still, there are moments when Olivo could tone down her deliveries to make Satine more vulnerable.
Tveit captures Christian’s sensitivity and his growing angst and frustration as the Duke of Monroth takes more and more control at the Moulin Rouge. Sahr Ngaujah as Toulouse-Lautrec delivers the insight of David Bowie’s “Nature Boy” with good feeling, and Tam Mutu smartly understates the Duke’s malevolence.
Sonya Tayeh’s choreography includes sharp ensembles and a clever sequence in which clothiers move smartly with their tape measures. Justin Townsend’s lighting has the vivid hues of an artist’s palate.
Timber and company need to make the closing 20 minutes of this new “Moulin Rouge!” as exciting and high-stepping as the show’s first 20. Still, the talents on display already make this Broadway-bound crowd-pleaser a must-see premiere – especially in the rococo grandeur of the re-opened Colonial.
The Emerson Colonial Theatre is located at 106 Boylston St., Boston. For tickets, call 888-616-0272 or visit www.emersoncolonialtheatre.com.