By James V. Ruocco
There's much to admire about the National Touring Company of "Moulin Rouge!" the Tony Award-winning musical based on Baz Luhrmann's hypnotic, wildly energetic 2002 motion picture that starred Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor draped in technicolor madness, offset by catchy jukebox music choices, splashy colors, styles and genres and sumptuous Parisian backdrops that cried "Paris est pour les amoureux, à la fois romantiques et condamnés."
So, let us begin.
On stage, the dazzling, artistic nightclub district of 19th century Montmartre sparkles with rich Bohemian allure, entrapment and intoxication.
The thick, vintage layers of fabric draped around the sets and backdrops glitter with dusty artist twinkle, flavor and French atmospheric influence.
The musical's big "Moulin Rouge!" sign - bathed in shiny, red, seductive lights that heat up every now and then - is a jaw-dropping sight to behold that casts its spell upon welcoming theatergoers as they take their seats, row by row, in the vast audience space before them.
Derek McLane's atmospheric set design is spectacle worthy with dreamlike dashes of fantasy, blaze, sexiness and shimmer.
Catherine Zuber's enticing costume design enhances the story's romantic tale of love and doom with couture specificity and refinement.
As Christian, Christian Douglas is appropriately dreamy as the romantic leading man of the "Moulin Rouge!" musical narrative.
In the role of Satine, the doomed, consumption-ridden heroine of the "Moulin Rouge!" fairy tale, Gabrielle McClinton, is so fiery, sensual and enticing, the seductive beauty and presence of her confident characterization radiates throughout the entire theatrical venue.
But first, let's backtrack.
As musical theatre, "Moulin Rouge!" flashes and shines with crazed, brilliantly timed execution, nostalgia and flamboyance. There's plenty of money, talent, energy, pyrotechnics and color to burn, making it "a hot ticket" for pretty much every single theatergoer in the audience - gay, straight, non-binary, transgender, confused or not-too-sure - willing to succumb to a glorious, hypnotic sound-and-sight show that never once fails to titillate, entertain or work one up into an emotional lather that lingers long after the musical has ended and the cast unite as one for their final curtain calls.
It's obvious to everyone that no expense has been spared - the show has cost millions to replicate on tour - to create this lavish, lush, immersive extravagance.
Unfortunately, the reworked book by John Logan, a playwright who tweaks parts of the original story for Broadway-inspired onslaught, debauchery and madness, often flatlines, if only fleetingly, as does certain dialogue and uninspired story arcs that interrupt the musical's push-and pull fantasia and giddyap.
Regardless, the musical's recognizable pop tunes and delightfully pumped-up staging and choreography thrust "Moulin Rouge!" back into the spotlight with enough oomph and splash to camouflage its paper-thin, age-old plot contrivances.
Shifting the action from screen to stage, Logan and the show's collaborators have quadrupled the musical's playlist of popular songs and showstoppers - much of the delight of everyone on stage and in the audience - with full blown numbers, mash ups, lyrical teases, love songs, duets, character spins, ensemble turns, cabaret leaps, inserts, snippets, vocal dramaturgy, remixes and outrageous, giant leaps of faith that reflect the beaming, dazzling backdrop of Montmartre and its pivotal, revolutionary players to full-on excitement, enticement and exhibition.
This flash-bang-whiplash-wallop of musicality and bohemian ideals comes gift wrapped with energy-induced offerings famously originated by the likes of Lady Gaga, Police, Madonna, OutKast, Pink, Beyonce, Marilyn Monroe, Adele, Gnarls Barkley, Britney Spears, Soft Cell, The Eurythmics, Rihanna, White Stripes, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Sia, Walk the Moon, Katy Perry, Rick Astley, Shirley Bassey, Lorde, T- Rex, The Beatles, No Doubt, Tina Turner and Dolly Parton, among others.
It's a concept of bold moves and musical cards that pumps the already adrenaline-fueled "Moulin Rouge!" into applause worthy proportions of interpretive specificity, gorgeous encores, lustful preening and parading and head-on, note-perfect directness and embracement.
Getting top placement are "Diamonds Are Forever," "Bad Romance," "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," "Children of the Revolution," "Sympathy for the Devil," "The Sound of Music," "So Fresh, So Clean," "Lady Marmalade," "Royals," "We Are Young," "Material Girl," "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," "Firework," "Toxic," "Come What May," "Seven Nation Army," "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," "Shut Up and Dance," "Tainted Love," "Roxanne," "Chandelier," Rolling in the Deep," "Crazy," "Never Gonna Give You Up," "Every Breath You Take," "All You Need is Love," "Don't Speak," "What's Love Got to Do With It?" "I Will Always Love You."
The pleasure that comes from hearing one song hit after another is credited to musical director Andrew Graham, a talented musician whose expressive depth, showmanship and intuitive rattle and roar fills "Moulin Rouge!" with a proud musical glow that is both joyous and luminous, mixed lovingly with achievement, shimmer, delivery and agenda. It's a truthful, silvery collaboration of orchestral showpieces, melodies and morsels that prompt immediate attention to the storytelling, its snap and sparkle, its romantic anticipation and its tinges of fantasia, chaos and rapture. Sonya Taveh's snappy, effective, significant choreography heightens the excitement with extravagant dance entertainment reflective of movie musicals, concerts, MTV videos and big, glossy Broadway productions.
Staging "Moulin Rouge!" director Alex Timbers ("Beetlejuice," "Here Lies Love," "Guttenberg! The Musical!") crafts an event-worthy pop musical that immerses its audience in the bacchanalian splendor and fantasy of the narrative, its storied Paris setting, its bohemian clientele, its navigated schtick and its playful mix of humor, reflection, sentiment, deceit and seduction. The script's subsequent lack of character and emotion occasionally knocks Timbers off his creative box from time to time, but he quickly moves past these odd, one-note interruptions with colorful choices, expressions and intentions that thrust "Moulin Rouge!" back into orbit with balance, feeling and anchored composition. He also has the pleasure of working with a cast of watchable, talented performers - principals, supporting players, ensemble - who bring plenty of heart, soul and spectacle to the piece and its curated, proven list of one hit pop song after the other.
In the lead role of Satine, the beautiful cabaret star and courtesan of the Moulin Rouge nightclub who is forced to seduce the wealthy Duke of Monroth to keep the Parisian venue from going bankrupt, Gabrielle McClinton dominates the musical with a tour-de-force performance of independence, glitter, sensuality and star power that reaches out far beyond the theater's proscenium wall to taunt, entire and arouse every heterosexual male in the audience willing to succumb to her to hypnotic allure, charm and beauty as both theatergoer and voyeur.
Throughout the production, she never once loses touch with the emotion, thrill and heartbreak of the piece or the fact that her character, who will eventually die of consumption before the musical's big mega mix finish, is part of a tragic fairy tale of which there is no escape or happy ending. Her romantic entanglement with the handsome Christian explodes with real warmth and trigger as does her many musical numbers that dominate the stage with an MTV bravura that is seamlessly integrated with a nightclub feel and aura reminiscent of Paris in the 1890's and the concert-going thrill of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s all rolled into one. Vocally, she brings a standout voice and snap to the stage, mixed with sass, buzz, vintage burlesque and three-ring circus bounce and flair.
As Christian, the struggling young artist and composer who comes to Paris to escape his stifling life in America, the boyish and dreamy Christian Douglas is the perfect fit for the part of the justifiably innocent songwriter and composer from America who wanders into the bohemian, red-light district world of the Moulin Rouge and falls instantly in love with Satine, the club's diamant scintillant à l’état brut.
Like his glamourous leading lady, Douglas plays his role with both enthusiasm, sway and pop tune magic, resulting in a polished, magnetic performance of energy and sexiness that leaves you saying, "Aaron, who?"
He's focused. He's confident. He's charming. He's committed. He's sweet. He's lost in the moment. He's genuine. He's the real deal.
Vocally, his flair for musical theatre is a happy explosion of balance, appreciation and confetti, laced with shine, purpose, inspiration and concept. He quickly transports his audience into another world and dimension - part fantasy, part glamour, part time travel - naturally fulfilling the musical's sensory exhilaration, flamboyance and groove. It's in his eyes. It's in his smile. It's in his movements. It's in his voice. It's in his expressions.
Robert Petkoff, in the pivotal, scene-stealing role of Harold Zidler, the welcoming ringleader, owner and emcee of the decadent and inviting Moulin Rouge nightclub, delivers a dazzling, delicious, ridiculously entertaining performance that commands your attention whenever he's onstage. He has great fun with the role, investing it with the thrill and spill the part call calls, but making it very much his own.
And he's not kidding.