NOTnew musicals can claim to represent an era – Hair is as indelible an image of free, hippie love as those pictures of flower children in Haight-Ashbury, while Phantom of the Opera speaks about the hyper-commercialism of the 80s with as much force as Gordon Gekko – and certainly the producers of Tony-sweeping Moulin Rouge! would prefer their show not forever associated with a global pandemic. And yet, after the Broadway cast was ravaged by Covid and Australia’s own production in Melbourne opened months late due to lockdowns, the tenacity of theater makers has rarely been felt so keenly.
That the musical is about a woman dying of a communicable disease but stubbornly determined to make “the show go on” now seem central in a way that Baz Luhrmann could not have conceived when he shot the film on which is based on this stage adaptation. Fans of the 2001 film will find a lot of similar things – a few scenes in particular are so reminiscent of Luhrmann’s cinematic vision that the effect is eerie – but also a lot of surprising and new things. There are even elements that surpass the original, in spectacle and in emotional weight.
The voices are not the least. Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor are verifiable movie stars, but neither is a natural singer. In the Melbourne production, which debuted a few weeks after the London show, Alinta Chidzey and Des Flanagan play lovers Satine and Christian. They bring real powerful vocal prowess to the score, an important distinction given the extra demands brought by the new songs. Katy Perry’s fireworks display, Sia’s chandelier, and Adele’s Rolling in the Deep are all big numbers, and the actors perform them with seemingly effortless skill.
Luhrmann’s central gimmick at the Moulin Rouge! imagine that Christian, a penniless composer in Montmartre during the Belle Époque, is so talented that every song he invents is a resounding success, the whole catalog of pop music of the 20th and 21st centuries is dormant in his premonitory brain. It allows the mother of all mash-ups, in a score that goes from Edith Piaf to Beyoncé, including Elvis and Bob Dylan. Unlike most jukebox musicals, which tend to be lazy and haphazard in their song selection, Justin Levine’s musical arrangements and orchestrations are so ingenious, thoughtful, and suited to the dramatic architecture of the show that the 75 separate songs give the impression of a fully integrated composition. It might be a loud night at the theater, but it’s perfectly calibrated.
Visually, it is sumptuous and finely detailed. Derek McLane’s set is brimming with clever film references – the boudoir where Christian and Satine first meet looks like an exact replica of Catherine Martin’s original set design – and Catherine Zuber’s magnificent costumes are striking in paintings and spectacular. moving. Justin Townsend’s lighting design is dazzling, with its deep reds and warm yellows, but it also artfully directs the eye in a spectacle that could easily become visually overwhelming. The overall effect is adorably trashy and elegantly opulent.
No one in the cast is wrong. Chidzey makes a wonderfully dignified courtesan, weary of her efforts to ward off death and unwanted men. Flanagan is a revelation, with a charming and gracious sincerity like the naive lover. His voice has an impressive depth, and at times a rock power, even if he relies a little too much on the vibrato in his upper register. Andrew Cook makes a suitably gooey Duke, and Tim Omaji and Ryan Gonzalez are fantastic support like Toulouse-Lautrec and Santiago. Simon Burke seems born to play Harold Zidler; salacious and carnal, he leaps across the stage like a demented Pandarus.
There’s an insane amount of work that goes into a show of this nature, and director Alex Timbers gets every ounce of enthusiasm from his team. The ensemble devours the brilliantly eclectic choreography and power of Sonya Tayeh through every scene; there isn’t a corner of the Regent Theater that they don’t overlook. Red Mill! is a love affair with the theater itself, sultry and passionate and ridiculously entertaining. It takes the dreaded idea of the pandemic and projects it into the stratosphere. Melbourne audiences are unlikely to return to earth for quite a while.