Moulin Rouge! The Musical at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre
Review by Mo Brady
Make way, make way for the spectacle Broadway has been waiting for. Much has been made about the opulence of the Mainstem’s newest mounting, Moulin Rouge! The Musical. And while much of that is due to the lavish production design (arguably the best Broadway has seen this decade), that sense of spectacle comes in great part thanks to the show’s large and talented ensemble.
From strictly a personnel perspective, Moulin Rouge! has a lot to boast. In a year where many new musicals have pared down the number of actors on stage, Moulin Rouge! features an onstage ensemble of 20. That’s four times as large as Hadestown, for those who are keeping track. What more than 20 actors onstage gives audiences is the chance to be truly enveloped in the show’s staging.
While choreographer Sonya Tayeh is best known for her work in the concert dance world, she’s brought A-grade musical theatre staging to the table. In sequences such as “Shut Up and Dance” and “Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend,” Tayeh’s expertise in creating visually arresting images marries with traditional musical theatre storytelling perfectly. She has featured many of her frequent collaborators such as Fred Odgaard and Khori Michelle Petinaud bringing their theatrical prowess to the table. The result is more than a few jaw-dropping moments, including the “Bad Romance” sequence at the top of Act II that literally stops the show.
In many ways, Moulin Rouge! picks up the torch from where Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 left off. Dave Malloy’s musical also immersed audiences is a world of deep reds and brazen bohemians that directly addressed the audience. In fact, the cast of Moulin Rouge! features three of The Great Comet’s star dancers among its ranks: Paloma Garcia-Lee, Reed Luplau and Brandt Martinez. But whereas these three dancers stood out in a show full of actor-musicians, in Moulin Rouge! they are matched by 17 of their ferocious dancing counterparts.
Calling the ensemble of Moulin Rouge! “the best in the business” is not hyperbole. This company boasts storied veterans of the Broadway stage (which I wrote about last winter). If the Great White Way had an “All-Star Team,” the lineup would include most of the company onstage at the Hirschfeld. It’s impossible to imagine a more proficient ensemble than one that includes Max Clayton, Bahiyah Hibah and Ericka Hunter.
Energetically, the ensemble rides the fine line of being unattainable without being aloof. From the show’s pre-opening-number parade, Morgan Marcell and Olutayo Bosede stare down the audience with a subdued but feral energy that makes you wonder whether they want to hurt you or fuck you (or both). Their sharp foci and snakelike movements are the perfect platform for the love story of Satine and Christian to be told .
With the lush settings by Derek McLane and costumes by Catherine Zuber, it's hard to feel like the club they inhabit is in the middle of a financial crisis. And while the story calls for Christian (Aaron Tveit) to eventually be taken in among the club’s community of artists, that idea isn’t reflected in the staging until a brief (but beautiful) tableau near the show’s end.
Another discordance between script and staging lies in the use of four featured club dancers informally known as the Lady M’s. Jacqueline B. Arnold, Robyn Hurder, Holly James and Jeigh Madjus (playing Nina, La Chocolat, Arabia and Baby Doll, respectively), start and end the show with an electrifying rendition of the movie’s signature take on the song “Lady Marmalade.” In addition to their untamed energy during the musical numbers, they are included in the staging of two book scenes about the viability of the club’s financial future. But while this quartet of women is supposed to act as proxies for the denizens of the club, the staging and direction of these scenes give them little agency.
For all of the remarkable pageantry, sections of Moulin Rouge! surprisingly fall flat. Even with actors Kyle Brown and Bahiyah Hibah flying high above a spinning Eiffel Tower, the Act I finale isn’t able to compete with the extravaganzas that graced the stage earlier, and while the musical mashups are in line with the film Moulin Rouge, bouncing between songs make it challenging to settle down and invest in what characters are actually feeling. Yet one feeling pervades the entire experience of attending the Moulin Rouge, that of being immensely entertained.