Review: MOULIN ROUGE! at Dr. Phillips Center Is Silly But Sumptuous

Featuring most of the movie's songs with plenty more packed in, the show is a Paris pop party with outstanding production values for a national tour.

By: Feb. 21, 2024
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Review: MOULIN ROUGE! at Dr. Phillips Center Is Silly But Sumptuous
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MOULIN ROUGE! is a show that makes bold choices, like when its lead heroine peers into the mirror to tell herself, with a steely, soul-searching seriousness: “Baby, you’re a firework.”

Or when her love interest is dissuaded from pulling a trigger upon hearing, “You can tell everybody this is your song.” (If Elton John lyrics are that powerful, why did we spend so much of Act I on Outkast and P!nk?)

Or, boldest of all, when our protagonist belts the famous rock ballad “Roxanne” in tribute to his lover named… Satine.

Yes, like the 2001 film that inspired it, Moulin Rouge! is a jukebox musical. It follows Christian, a young poet pursuing a courtesan named Satine in turn-of-the-century Paris’s most debauched cabaret. But that story takes a back seat to the dozens of contemporary pop songs that are shoehorned into its narrative and consume most of the time on stage.

But despite its painful non sequiturs, which include a top-hatted man in the year 1900 pouring shots of absinthe while singing Sia’s “Chandelier,” the show has flashes of transcendence. In one early conversation, characters banter by borrowing single lines from different songs that suit their conversation — one sings Paula Cole, for example, and the other replies with The Police — in a way that calls attention to the jukebox form and, in doing so, comments upon its inherent absurdity.

Alas, those fleeting bouts of substance are all too brief. Moulin Rouge! is just here to party — and what a party it is.

I can’t recall seeing a single show on the national touring circuit with costumes, lighting, and scenic design as sumptuous as those in Moulin Rouge!. Yes, the show is scaled down from its eye-popping, Tony-winning 2019 Broadway production (still running in New York), but as touring productions go, this one’s exceptionally pleasing to the eye.

Pleasing the ear, meanwhile, is a top-notch cast led by Christian Douglas, whose brilliant singing voice and charming everyman sensibility are the stuff of a star in the making. (This is the second time I’ve seen Douglas lead a show, having witnessed him in New York’s recent off-Broadway revival of Kinky Boots, and both times he’s emerged as better than the material he’s working with.)

And while “Firework” may be so poor a fit for this story that its opening verse elicited derisive laughter from those around me, it’s also reportedly one of the hardest songs in all of pop to sing, and yet it’s one of many that Gabrielle McClinton nails effortlessly as Satine. She slyly glides between sympathetic, seductive, and comedic in a role that also requires real dancing chops — no problem for McClinton.

The show’s only technical shortcoming is in sound design which, at least on opening night at Dr. Phillips Center in Orlando, caused sudden and violent spikes in volume during moments of crescendo, most notably at the arrival of the chorus in “Firework,” as though a technician slipped and fell on the dial.

Kander and Ebb proved that a seedy night club can be fertile ground for great theatre. Moulin Rouge!, I’m afraid, is no Cabaret. But for those familiar with the movie and wondering whether the musical on tour might strike their fancy, I offer this gauge: while not my cup of thé, the stage show captures nearly all the delights of Baz Luhrmann’s quirky film while also diversifying its musical palette and fortifying the talent of its cast.

As I suppose has been true for as long as its windmill has been turning, those eager for an easy escape and the bright lights of extravagance will find what they’re looking for at the Moulin Rouge. The show runs at Dr. Phillips Center through March 3, 2024.

What do you think of MOULIN ROUGE! on tour? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace

Photo Credit: Tour Production Photos by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade, 2023.