Review: MOULIN ROUGE! is a Thrilling Spectacle with So-So Songs

This jukebox musical is a visual stunner—but how do you feel about Top 40 mashups?

By: May. 20, 2024
Review: MOULIN ROUGE! is a Thrilling Spectacle with So-So Songs
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Are you a millennial who listened to “Elephant Love Medley” on repeat? Then this perspective is for you. But quickly, for those who need some background: Moulin Rouge! is the tragic love story of a poor writer, Christian, and the Moulin Rouge’s star burlesque performer, Satine. The story takes place circa 1890, complete with real-life characters like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (famed Parisian poster artist) and Consumption (a sickness that may as well be a character in tales of this era). 

The 2001 film by Baz Luhrmann encourages hopeless romanticism and passion by way of classics like Elton John’s “Your Song” and Sting’s “Roxanne.” Visually, it’s dizzying and vibrant. Millennials of a certain age love to love it.

The stage musical, with book by John Logan and music supervision by Justin Levine, ups the ante on each of these fronts—to varying degrees of success. Scenic design by Derek McLane, costume design by Catherine Zuber, and lighting design by Justin Townsend are sumptuous, dazzling, and literally electric. That’s all exactly as it should be and more—a lush fantasy from start to finish. 

Where Moulin Rouge! (directed by Alex Timbers) loses me on stage is some of the song choices. They’ve been updated compared to the film, perhaps as they should be. For starters, I understand licensing comes into play. And this is a jukebox musical, so the creators are within their rights to choose from a more-current Top 40.

But even with this great touring cast, it’s hard not to hear the songs as karaoke. Anthems like Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” Katy Perry’s “Firework,” Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance,” Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”—some land better than others. It’s a lot to ask of these performers to be so agile in their range, and with the original pop songs burned in your brain, it’s impossible not to compare. 

Perhaps the benefit of the original film’s choices was that the songs weren’t so recently popular as to feel a little corny and forced. There are over 70 pop songs sampled in the staged Moulin Rouge!—21 songs in the updated “Elephant Love Medley” alone. The film’s medley had 10, which explains why it feels that much less chaotic. The songs are best in
Moulin Rouge! when the performers are given a chance to sink into them.

In short, you’re either a person who is unbothered by covers of popular music—or you’re inclined to cringe a little. To the cringe prone: Moulin Rouge! is not your safe space. But it is stunning to look at. And the performances are a treat, particularly Christian Douglas as Christian, whose strong voice is a swoon-worthy standout. As Satine, Gabrielle McClinton takes every chance to sparkle. When it comes to choreography (Sonya Tayeh), Danny Burgos and Sarah Bowden steal the show with their scintillating tango.

Exiting the theater, I was unsure what the musical wanted us to take away. Is it a booty-shaking party, or a tragic love story? I think it could do more to marry the two. The one thing I know for sure: the songs may be a little overplayed and stale, but Moulin Rouge! is a delicious visual feast.

Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy


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