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Review: Overwhelming Splendor Arrives with MOULIN ROUGE! at OC's Segerstrom Center

Loud and over-the-top, the musical's first national tour wows with its visuals to distract from its paper-thin storyline.

Review: Overwhelming Splendor Arrives with MOULIN ROUGE! at OC's Segerstrom Center
The First National Tour Cast of MOULIN ROUGE! Photo by Matthew Murphy.

In most cases, jukebox musicals all have an inherent familiarity baked into their DNA, whether the songs included in them are from one singular artist or, perhaps, a particular musical genre or time period.

But for the campy, sensory overload that is the Tony Award-winning stage adaptation of MOULIN ROUGE! THE MUSICAL---whose first national tour is currently smacking audiences' attention spans at OC's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa through November 27, 2022---the pop catalog it uses spans multiple genres, musical tastes, and even centuries... virtually a chart-topping buffet of familiar hits that don't have much connective tissue between them, but yet still cheekily exemplifies the show's entire vibe.

You already get a heaping helping of that vibe as soon as soon as you enter the theater and behold the blazing, red-hot Tony-winning stage set designed by Derek McLane, which pairs creatively well with Justin Townsend's Tony-winning lighting design (arguably both make a valid case for being the true stars of the show).

MOULIN ROUGE!---inspired by imaginative auteur Baz Luhrmann's 2001 movie musical---dares you not to look away from the very start, even before a single actor steps on stage. It's bright, it's big, it's loud, it's curiously titillating... and a perfectly au courant Instagrammable backdrop no patron can possibly resist posting on their socials to declare to the world, "Ha! Look what I'm seeing tonight!"

I mean, well... I certainly posted one.

But getting mesmerized right off the bat is pretty easy. On one side of the stage is the iconic windmill one immediately associates with the real-life Moulin Rouge cabaret club in Paris' Montmartre Quarter. On the other side, a huge bejeweled elephant---an equally significant icon in the story---towers above, adorned with a rich color palette reminiscent of an Indian work of art. Smack dab in the middle, the Moulin Rouge! signage is lit aglow with an ocean of lights in the foreground, while more lights behind it all create multiple heart-shaped frames that feel like the velvet-lined lace entrance tunnel to the largest Victoria's Secret Valentines Sale circus tent ever created.

Just before the show officially begins, the brightly-lit stage is soon populated by a smattering of scantily-clad performers of varying genders, adorned in Catherine Zuber's gorgeous Tony-winning costumes. Gyrating slowly and beckoning the audience to stare like performance artists in a Paris museum, some are interacting with each other, while others are catching the attention of awed theatergoers just getting to their seats or taking (apparently illegal) selfies.

No other show welcomes you in quite like this, and it cleverly does so by design.

Like an out-of-control, sexy-fied holiday lights-and-sounds display on steroids (and probably some Viagra), everything that explodes out of this stage adaptation of MOULIN ROUGE!---from its vibrant sets and dazzling costumes to its high-energy dances and amusingly random song selections---are, of course, purposely designed to wow and enchant the audience's visual and aural senses to its highest settings, and making sure that it is perfectly clear from the get-go that what they're about to experience is an atypical Broadway show.

So, yes, that exclamation point in the title doesn't appear there by accident. It's but a subtle hint at the outrageously un-subtle machinations at work in this over-the-top, but fascinatingly entertaining stage show filled with stunning production values, exaggerated histrionics, incredible choreography (courtesy of So You Think You Can Dance's Sonya Tayeh), and spectacular singing voices (courtesy of its über-talented cast)---all of which come together to be the memorable take-aways of the show...and, maybe, not necessarily its thinly-constructed plot adapted by book writer John Logan, deviating slightly from the original movie script penned by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce.

But, fear not---those with a nostalgic fondness for Luhrmann's equally topsy turvy 1999 movie that had Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman belting 20th Century chart toppers from the rooftops of 1899 Paris will certainly find the show equally as enchanting, if not more so, thanks to the magic of its Luhrmann-esque stage craft, all brought to vivid, glorious life by director Alex Timbers.

Taking the "nothing impresses like excess" school of thought, MOULIN ROUGE! makes eye-popping distraction an art form.

Review: Overwhelming Splendor Arrives with MOULIN ROUGE! at OC's Segerstrom Center
Harper Miles, Libby Lloyd, Nicci Claspell and Andrés Quintero.
Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The trick with loving this show is simple enough. As most everyone did during the packed evening performance I attended recently for invited OC press, one must suspend all expectations for a serious-minded, traditional book musical, and, instead, fully commit and jump into this weird, wacky, but undeniably enjoyable world that has been conjured up for our awed consumption.

It's a world where creative, bohemian artists are celebrated and revered. It's a world where emotions are so heightened that one can't help but burst out singing lyrics from a million different, seemingly unrelated songs in just one number. And it's a world where truth, beauty, freedom, and love are deep-seeded ideals sought with reckless abandon.

The show kicks off with a bang with a quartet of the club's starlets ferociously growling a rousing "Welcome" medley anchored by Labelle's super-catchy "Lady Marmalade," a song originally showcased as an all-star remake tacked on to the film's commercial soundtrack, but here is smartly upgraded into a full-on, hypnotically-choreographed production number exploding with sexuality, bawdiness, and sass.

A helluva way to introduce the title venue and its resident performers, the medley---like many others in the rest of the show---are featured as part of many overblown mash-ups, a music-threading device that was utilized in the movie and has been greatly expanded (and, um, maybe amusingly overused) here.

Many of the show's mash-ups could contain 2, 3, 10, or even seemingly a thousand other songs in it---all sharing an ad-hoc theme, but many are smile-inducing for its nostalgic recall and even pleasantly surprising, especially for the "newer" recent songs added to the mix for the stage version.

MOULIN ROUGE! is the kind of musical that somehow blends Lorde's "Royals" and Fun's "We Are Young" with T. Rex's 1972 hit "Children of the Revolution" into a medley and... it mostly works. The material here is vast and far-reaching: everything from Rick Astley, the Rolling Stones, Outkast, and Katy Perry to Adele, Beyoncé, Madonna, and the Commodores make appearances---some elicit joy, others elicit head-scratches.

Review: Overwhelming Splendor Arrives with MOULIN ROUGE! at OC's Segerstrom Center
Conor Ryan, Gabe Martínez, André Ward and Austin Durant.
Photo by Matthew Murphy.

One of the show's best mash-ups, though, opens the second act involving Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance," Soft Cell's "Tainted Love," the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army," the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams," and Britney Spears' "Toxic" coming together as a fierce, tango-inspired "rehearsal" number that was pure dazzling, high-energy awesomeness.

And, of course, those familiar with the film will delight in the return of that movie's euphoric "Elephant Love Medley" which is recreated here to include several additional songs that make it even more over-the-top.

I often found myself wondering as the show went on... gosh, how much did this musical spend to secure the rights to all these famous hit songs?

Though its plot pivots a bit from the movie, this stage show still features, at its core, an exhilarating but ultimately doomed romance between a pair of artistes (with an "e") that become intertwined inside the Paris landmark.

On one side is genius starving artist Christian (the vocally-gifted Conor Ryan), just in from Ohio hoping to break out as a songwriter. The other half of the couple, sheltered inside the walls of the club, is the "sparkling diamond" headliner of the Moulin Rouge, Satine (the lovely Courtney Reed), a well-loved superstar whose seductive come-ons harbor a tragic personal secret.

The would-be lovers meet by accident, naturally, each with an initial goal that gets jumbled up in a madcap misunderstanding---that could be a farcical storyline straight out of the sitcom Three's Company.

Upon his initial entry into Paris, Christian's new local bohemian pals Toulouse-Lautrec (the terrific André Ward) and Santiago (the feisty Gabe Martínez)---struggling to create a new musical play---are floored by the newly arrived American's natural poetic, genius talents and urges him to come with them to the Moulin Rouge to pitch any show idea(s) to the club's owner and impresario Harold Zidler (the striking Austin Durant) and his "shining" star Satine.

For his part, Zidler has his own problems. With his club facing dire financial ruin, he's desperate to infuse the place with a new financial stream, and so he attempts to convince local rich douche, the Duke of Monroth (the debonair David Harris) to invest in his club. He has even recruited poor Satine herself to seduce the Duke into doing so, which Satine obliges, hyper-aware that her very livelihood and the livelihoods of her fellow Moulin Rouge performers may depend on this man's patronage---even if that patronage has strings attached. She also feels that her gifts of beauty and talent are the only tools at her disposal in order to get ahead.

Alas, things go truly wacko when Satine initially mistakes Christian for the Duke, while Christian---who had set up a meeting between them to sell a musical to the club---falls madly in love with Satine, and, eventually, vice versa.

When the Duke barges in on their tryst, the entire creative team jumps in and decides to pitch Christian's show titled Bohemian Rhapsody directly to the Duke who somehow agrees to finance it---as long as Satine remain by his arm.

And thus begins Christian and Satine's secret behind-the-scenes affair---haphazardly hidden from the Duke---as they rehearse for the upcoming show that may or may not help the club's financial troubles.

A genuinely, overall entertaining stage musical, MOULIN ROUGE!'s main goals are to not only remind fans of the Luhrmann film why it had such a cult following in the first place, but to also wow modern theatergoers looking for a more "showy" stage experience. The show does so without being too serious or maudlin, and, for the most part, the show succeeds in this. Even scenes meant to be less comedic, more romantic, or, on the rare occasion, more earnest, come off slightly cheesy---which is actually okay... it just makes the show somehow more endearing than it's probably meant to be.

Visually, it's a stunning watch. The display of vocal and dancing talents are high-caliber. The show is certainly a feast for the senses.

And while the story remains serviceable at best, it accomplishes enough of a connective throughput, giving the show a platform for its massive catalog of pop songs to ensure Maximum Entertainment value. Audiences are lulled well into thinking the show is dazzling and spectacular without having to extend that amazingness to every trait in the show's arsenal.

I cannot boast enough about the singing talents herein. While it's a shame that the two very talented leads don't share much believable chemistry as a couple (I somewhat blame the book for this unfortunate flaw), I was still utterly mesmerized by their incredible singing voices both as soloists and in their many duets. Swoon-worthy Ryan's impressive, buttery riffs and impassioned vocal delivery is, by far, the most flattering for his character, which effortlessly sells the idea that he is one adorkable, lovestruck puppy with a discernible knack for writing (and then singing) very clever songs, allowing us as an audience to care about his journey.

Surprisingly, the chemistry is off-the-charts for BFF's Ward and Martínez (and with Ryan, by extension) who make for an excellent comedy sparring team.

Review: Overwhelming Splendor Arrives with MOULIN ROUGE! at OC's Segerstrom Center
André Ward, Courtney Reed, Conor Ryan, David Harris,
Austin Durant, and Gabe Martínez. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

But while this musical's story does take a backseat to the driving force of the show's heightened visual and aural attributes (which, for some, might be an annoying distraction, but for others a money's worth-type of forced submission), either way it's taken, MOULIN ROUGE! truly has your rapt attention.

Much like Satine, MOULIN ROUGE!'s aim is to seduce the audience into submission... and in a way, that aim is easily met... with loud, feverish ovations.

* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *

-----

Photos by Matthew Murphy, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

Performances of MOULIN ROUGE! THE MUSICAL continue at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, CA through November 27, 2022. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.

***


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A So. Cal. Contributing Editor since 2009, Michael Lawrence Quintos is a talented, mild-mannered Designer by day. But as night falls, he regularly performs on various stages everywhere as a Counter... (read more about this author)


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