Theater review

At some point during the opening medley of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” running at the Paramount Theatre through Jan. 1, 2023, I’m pretty sure the pounding bass reverberating through the theater replaced my heartbeat. From the jump, the musical that melds chart-topping popular songs with a book by John Logan left no doubt as to what “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” wants to be: a party. Well, with its flashing strobe and bass that overpowers most of the lyrics, perhaps thinking of a nightclub might give you a better picture. And if that’s what you’re looking for, you’re in for a treat that will overwhelm the senses from beginning to end. But if you’re looking for a musical, well, you will likely still be looking by the time you leave.

“Moulin Rouge! The Musical” is a jukebox musical and stage adaptation of the 2001 film “Moulin Rouge!” directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. The story stays much the same, retelling the story of Christian, a young composer, who falls for Satine, a cabaret actress starring at the Moulin Rouge, a Paris cabaret. It’s up to them and their friends to save the cabaret by winning over a wealthy potential investor, the Duke of Monroth. A love triangle develops as Satine is forced to be with the duke despite the love that has developed between her and Christian.

Like in the movie, the tragic love story is mixed with popular music throughout, but with additional songs that came out between the movie’s premiere and the musical’s world premiere in 2018. For instance, Satine has now added Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” to her cabaret repertoire, and bohemian friends Christian, Toulouse-Lautrec and Santiago sing about how they’ll never be “Royals” using Lorde’s song. (But hey, at least, as they quote Fun., tonight “We Are Young.”) Some of these integrations are exceptionally clever, like Satine and Christian meeting and dancing for the first time to Walk The Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance.” However, the now-overstuffed and overly repetitive “Elephant Love Medley” starts to show the dark side of these additions. “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” takes the iconic 10-song medley from the movie and somehow stuffs 14 new songs into it, leading to the feeling that the creative team allowed a desire to leave no popular music stone unturned to overshadow the story at the heart of their show.

Before too long, the show starts to feel like a game of “name that song.” Emotional moments that, in a musical, should absolutely be supported by a song are instead undermined by the chuckles from the audience as they enjoy the next reference on the musical’s docket. For example, after Christian gets brutally rejected by Satine, chuckles dot the audience as he starts singing a slow, determined “I remember when, I remember, I remember when I lost my mind” from Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” It’s his lowest point in the entire show, and our thoughts are about the reference and not the character. It’s a common theme in the show, where potentially emotional moments are undercut by the cleverness of the song integration. It’s like the show is fighting itself. 

To the credit of the performers, especially Courtney Reed and Andrew Brewer, who played Satine and Christian on opening night, respectively, they tended to bounce back from these awkward song starts. Satine, having just been told she needs to be “on” because the survival of the cabaret she loves rests entirely on her being able to seduce the duke, starts singing Katy Perry’s “Firework.” Another low moment met with giggles. But by the chorus, she finds her stride and connection with the audience.

At face value, the quality of the show is top tier. You’ll enjoy gorgeous costumes designed by Catherine Zuber and a spectacular set design from Derek McLane. The show really seems to prioritize the spectacle, so much so that it can begin to feel like an assault on the senses. It can be so loud and in-your-face that the quieter moments, like Christian’s nervous patter or the cute moments of flirting between the central lovers, come as a blessing. One standout quieter moment is André Ward, who played Toulouse-Lautrec, showcasing his phenomenal voice on his rendition of Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy.” But overall, the show struggles to meld the music with the love story at its core.

By the end of the show, those pounding opening moments felt like a gimmick, a facade on top of something hollow, attempting to grab the audience through force because it didn’t trust itself to win over its audience’s hearts. Honestly, I fault no one for enjoying this show; it makes a great singalong at the very least. But the bohemians in this story talk about considering themselves revolutionaries and using their art as a weapon. Whatever potential this story had as a tool to talk about love and life has been dulled by how the show functions.

“Moulin Rouge! The Musical”

Book by John Logan, based on the 2001 20th Century Studios motion picture written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, directed by Luhrmann. Through Jan. 1, 2023; Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; tickets start at $35;