Three decades after The Phantom first dropped his chandelier in New York and Jean Valjean took up pursuit here, along comes another Paris-based musical spectacle and prospective blockbuster.
The $28 million adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s psychedelic film Moulin Rouge! exemplifies excess, from mashups of some 70 pop songs to the humongous elephant and windmill atop Derek McLane’s glittery set. Only the ensemble’s skimpy and lacy costumes, by Catherine Zuber, run counter to the more-is-more ethos of the musical, which opened last night at the Al Hirschfeld.
The plot roughly tracks the 2001 movie: a penniless writer Christian (Aaron Tveit) falls in with a group of bohemians, just as the club’s hard-up owner (Danny Burstein) is pressuring the performer-courtesan Satine (Karen Olivo) to please a rich, bullying duke (Tam Mutu) who can save the business. Satine falls for the writer, setting up a collision between idealism and realism amid the creation of a ‘spectacular spectacular’ — what Parisians apparently called a big musical back in 1899.
There’s a lot to take in at the Belle Époque nightclub. Sonya Tayeh’s kinetic and versatile choreography is great fun, especially in the second-act opener, a rehearsal of the show-within-the-show, combining Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” enhanced by Justin Townsend’s strobe effects.
Under music supervisor and arranger Justin Levine, Moulin Rouge! makes a strong case for the theatricality of the movie’s songbook, including the ballads “Your Song” and “Come What May.” Olivo (who first appears on a trapeze lowered from the flies) brings an arresting intensity to the empowerment anthem “Firework,” a song made famous by Katy Perry. Burstein has a hoot with Sia’s “Chandelier” during an absinthe party.
But as with any playlist that offers something for everyone — it runs the gamut from “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” to The Rolling Stones and Talking Heads to Adele and Beyoncé — there’s no distinctive musical aesthetic. And Moulin Rouge! has more success with scale than intimacy. Olivo and Tveit are major talents but their star-crossed romance doesn’t generate much heat. Book writer John Logan struggles to build an engaging narrative around all the songs, especially with characters that rarely rise above archetypes.
Still, it’s been years since a huge new musical commanded top dollar at the box office, and this one’s unique. Director Alex Timbers presides over an exuberant showcase of spectacle, and the eclectic pop songs are delivered with flair and wit. Given the strong word of mouth generated by a successful Boston tryout and sold-out previews, Moulin Rouge! may join Phantom of the Opera as Parisian fixtures on Broadway.