Moulin Rouge! The Musical review – Piccadilly Theatre, London ★★★☆☆

Photo: Marc Brenner

Based on the 2001 hit film by Baz Luhrmann starring Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor and a host of other stars, Moulin Rouge is an unsurprising choice for a stage adaptation given that it is very much a musical film – what might be a surprise is how long it took it to appear on stage; first on Broadway in 2019 and now in the West End where it opened in 2021.

The musical sees Christian (this performance featured the impressive swing performer Gavin Ryan, replacing Dom Simpson), a young American writer, seeking to find himself in Paris at the turn of the 20th century where he encounters members of the Bohemian movement including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Ian Carlyle) and Santiago the Argentinean (Ivan De Freitas) who are planning to produce a play with songs. Discovering Christian’s songwriting talent, they take him to the Parisian cabaret club the Moulin Rouge, run by the larger-than-life Harold Zidler (Matt Rixon), to attempt to get the work performed on its stage. While there, Christian falls in love with the club’s star actress and Courtesan, Satine (Tanisha Spring).

There are many similarities between the stage and film versions – the setting is the same and the storyline remains relatively intact – but there are notable differences for devotees of the film to process; the main one being the choice of songs. Though the selections have been updated, and all will be familiar to even those with only a casual awareness of music, it’s not quite a jukebox musical nor is it approaching karaoke, given its blending and overlapping of multiple songs.

Photo: Marc Brenner

Despite the predominance of hearts that adorn Derek McLane’s incredible stage, the love-heart cut-out backdrops, the love-heart spotlights, and the songs of the heart – this is the one thing that it feels it could do with more off. Everything is technically accomplished, from the singing to the dancing to the band’s performance – but the overriding sense is that it all somehow lacks depth. As well as the glorious staging, it’s also wonderfully costumed by Catherine Zuber and lit by Justin Townsend.

In the cast, Ryan is endearing, filling Christian with boyish charm, naïve hopes and dreams, and a slightly geekish demeanour. Meanwhile, Spring is coy and disarming, perfectly evidencing the hard life Satine has endured and the street smarts and defence mechanisms she has built up to protect herself. Their performances spark off each other – where there is heart, it is here.

Ben Richards is another shining light as the show’s antagonist, the Duke. But in this show where subtlety is frequently eschewed in favour of the obvious, the producers and creative team (it’s not clear from the show’s credits who exactly is pulling the strings) reduce the character to set pieces, such as having him sing the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil as he seeks to seduce Satine. That said, the film wasn’t particularly subtle either so audiences familiar with it will probably know what they’re getting themselves into.

Photo: Marc Brenner

The producers’ ambitious attempts to pay royalties to as many songwriters as possible result in medleys that jolt from one song to the next, jarringly throwing in single lines from some numbers. Elephant Love Medley alone features twenty separate songs in around 5 minutes. The equivalent song from the film, released under the same name, features exactly half that number and is all the better for it. I hesitate to say ‘If it’s not broken…’ but if it’s not broken don’t double the track list. That probably gets to the heart of the play’s issues – it wants to do too much and it wants to do all of it at once.

All of that is to say that this is a musical with a crisis of consciousness – it doesn’t know whether to just entertain or whether to tell a story too. For many it will do the former, many others may wish for more of the latter

Moulin Rouge is currently booking to 31 August 2024