Review: MOULIN ROUGE THE MUSICAL at The Hippodrome

A Dazzling, Dizzying Diamond Display through December 17th.

By: Dec. 07, 2023
Review: MOULIN ROUGE THE MUSICAL at The Hippodrome
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I remember trying to watch Moulin Rouge when the movie came out in 2001 and only getting about halfway through it. I have to confess I found the story rather trite and entirely predictable, only elevated by the inclusion of lots of catchy pop songs. So I was delightfully surprised when I saw the current iteration of this piece as a Broadway musical. Here I was all set to cast my weary, cynical eye on one more story of the ‘ho with a deadly disease (they do seem to be disproportionately prone to tuberculosis), but I was thoroughly entertained by this dazzling, dizzying, diamond of a show.

The set that greets audiences at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre is comprised of filigreed halfmoons and cutouts suggesting hearts, with a big neon ‘L’Amour’ in script across the backdrop.

Roughly, the story concerns a nightclub called Moulin Rouge (and yes, there really is a nightclub of that name in the Montmartre district in Paris), and the denizens therein.  The opening number, like many of the numbers in the show, is a mash-up of past and present pop hits, the most prominent in the opener being ‘Lady Marmalade’, as we are introduced to most of the major players. The club is run by a huckster with a heart, named Zidler, more of a ringmaster/emcee who gets the show moving in the opening number.

The star, Santine, a former lady of the evening who now utilizes her more vertical talents as a singer and dancer at the club, hides the secret of her health from everyone. When an American songwriter, the dewy-eyed Christian, arrives – broke, hopelessly romantic, and instantly smitten with Santine, the romance is off to a tuneful start.

Christian is looped into the action when he meets two other struggling artists, one a devoted mentor of Santine, named Toulouse-Latrec (yes, that Toulouse-Latrec), the other a tango dancer named Santiago, who are trying to write a musical. The three of them are all connected to the club – Christian by his crush on Santine, Toulouse as her protector despite his diminutive stature and physical challenges, and Santiago by his relationship with Santine’s best friend, Nini.

With the club in danger of being shut down for lack of funds, the appearance of the Duke of Monroth, a thoroughly distasteful but very rich jerk, Zidler sees his chance to save the club by pimping out Santine to the Duke. How this plays out against a musical backdrop of more pop ear candy than I could possibly recount is the crux of the evening’s entertainment.

Director Alex Timbers has coordinated an extraordinary team of professionals on both the tech and performance side of the show. When the musical strays into a vaudevillian, circus-y turn, it leans into the curves, puts the pedal to the metal and heads hell bent for leather into camp. In the hands of this talented director, the pacing is precise, the staging is spot-on, and it all works exceedingly well.

Every aspect of Moulin Rouge is visually stunning. Peter Hylenski’s sound design strikes that rare balance between orchestrations and vocal levels, Justin Townsend’s lights deserve an extra line of credit for perfectly illuminating the fantastic set designed by Derek McLane, and oh my!  Those costumes by Catherine Zuber so expertly capture the feel of the era that I wanted to don one of those can-can skirts myself. Pure tech delights in each and every scene shift and change. And so much of that magic happens with seeming ease, especially for an opening night.

Justin Levine admits that squeezing 71 songs into one musical was a tremendous amount of work but says they didn’t do it all at once. Regardless of the process, the finished product is astonishing in its scope. As arranger, co-orchestrator, and writer of additional lyrics, there would really be no reason for this show without his contribution. His choice of where to put which song is a testament to his talent. And while some songs are there just for the pure entertainment, Levine worked some real magic with choosing just the right song for the emotion at the moment.

Choreographer Sonya Tayeh won the richly deserved Tony (along with Tonys for most of the tech team and actors) for her work on Moulin Rouge, The Musical. With a background in dance and theatre that includes venues as far-reaching as the American Ballet Theatre  to the Fox TV Network’s Rent, she creates dances that twist and writhe, with acrobatic alacrity matching movement to music in a way that perfectly suites the time period of the Belle Epoque played against the contemporary songs.

The fabulous ensemble leaps and twirls, precise and focused as the Rockets at the Holiday Spectacular, but with a lot more bumps and grinds. High kicks and smooth hips, they swiveled and pranced and danced their Broadway butts off. Their supporting vocals were just as good as their dancing and formed the backbone of the show. Full disclosure, as a former chorus boy in a few major touring companies myself, I’ll gush over my compatriots shamelessly when they’re that good – but I also cut them very little slack when they’re not. These kids nailed every number.

The entire supporting cast is exceptional. The quartet of women who open the show with Lady Marmalade due the song proud, Sarah Bowden as Nini apparently has no bones in her incredibly strong and flexible body, Danny Burgos as Santiago scowls and stomps with menacing yet kindly demeanor, tossing Ms. Bowden around with great support, and all the featured performers more than aptly hold their own.

Andrew Brewer’s Duke is smarmy and slickly aristocratic. He slithers around the stage and through his scenes with great vocal prowess and a piercing gaze that fixes on Santine as his personal property, as though he were about to mount her like a bug under glass for the world to admire – as long as she belongs to him alone.

Nick Rashad Burroughs is a standout as Toulouse-Lautrec. With an indeterminate Mid-Atlantic accent, a voice that can soar with power one note and whisper with longing in the next, he commands the stage like a seasoned pro should.

Robert Petkoff’s Harold Zidler is a throwback to the Barnum and Baily ringmasters of old, all top hat and sparkly jackets, funny and conniving as any carny master of ceremonies. His comedic timing is perfect.

Santine is a beauty with a voice that makes the audience know right away that we’re in the presence of a true star with Ms. Gabrielle McClinton. In her opening number that combines elements of ‘Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend’, ‘Material Girl’, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, well, you get the theme, she is as glittering and captivating as a brand new silver dollar. She shines, she struts, and yet we know almost from the beginning that there is more to Santine and Ms. McClinton – a deeper layer that hides the character’s troubled past. Her resignation that her lot in life is the only hand that will be dealt her is obvious in the tilt of her head and her hip-sure stance. In a star-making part, McClinton claims it like a birth right.

For me, the true standout of the evening was Preston Taylor, standing in as Christian. Never let it be said that the understudies are not as good as the originals. They work just as hard for a smidgen of the accolades on the rare nights they get to go on. And this guy worked it like he was born to be in that spotlight. While I didn’t see Aaron Tveit in this part, I have seen him in others. And I can’t speak to Christian Douglas’s performance – he’s the star of the tour who was on vocal rest on the opening night in Baltimore. But I can speak and shout about how great a job Preston Taylor did as Christian. Great looking, with a voice that rivals most of my favorites of his genre, he was never one whit less than superb. For my money, he is a worthy cohort with the rest of and best of those who play these leading men.

Moulin Rouge is set in 1899, with songs that most of us grew up listening to, remembering so fondly where we were when we first heard them, from Elton John to Nat King Cole, to Lady Gaga and Madonna, to just about everyone else who had a top ten hit in the last 50 or 60 years. Sure, the story is a little hack, but so what? A good time, like a good tune, is timeless. Go, enjoy, and listen to your memories. You’ll be dazzled.

Moulin Rouge The Musical runs through December 17 at The Hippodrome, 12 North Eutaw Street, Baltimore, MD. Click here for information and tickets.

Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy


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