'Moulin Rouge!' lush pop song musical can, can, can

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday September 13, 2022
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Austin Durant (center) as Harold Zidler, and the cast of the North American Tour of Moulin Rouge! The Musical (photo: Matthew Murphy/MurphyMade)
Austin Durant (center) as Harold Zidler, and the cast of the North American Tour of Moulin Rouge! The Musical (photo: Matthew Murphy/MurphyMade)

Spectacular sets, extravagant costumes, dozens of pop song snippets woven together in a sonic field of dreams. The national tour of "Moulin Rouge! The Musical" now playing at the Orpheum Theater, offers audiences an eye-popping, ear-tickling two-and-a-half hour escape from their troubles.

Directed for the stage by the hyper-imaginative Alex Timbers ("Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," "Beetlejuice"), the show is very much in sync with the ADD aesthetic of Baz Luhrmann, who created the film on which it's based. With a fusillade of confetti, the production blasts you off into frou-frou fantasy; a mental space with mood-lifting antigravity that keeps you afloat, weightlessly happy, in a trope-dense atmosphere of melodrama, romance and showbiz-with-a-Z.

A plot summary here would be as superfluous as the plot is onstage. It's a tried-and-true blend of bohemian artistic aspiration; love discovered, lost and found; and Snidely Whiplash villainy (provided by David Harris as The Duke) —a forest of evergreens planted only to support a hundred Christmases' bounty of tinsel and ornaments.

The directors' elaborate vision is executed through dazzling work by designers including Derek McClane (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Justin Townsend (lighting). But first-rate stagecraft alone would not be enough to keep this vision spinning. In fact, it's easy to imagine a less talented cast with a less disciplined tone making it all feel like a coldly calculated entertainment machine.

Conor Ryan as Christian and Courtney Reed as Satine in the North American Tour of Moulin Rouge! The Musical (photo: Matthew Murphy/MurphyMade)  

A star is born
The Atlas who carries this fantasy world on his shoulders (all the while shrugging them with an 'aw- shucks' attitude) is Conor Ryan, who plays male ingenue Christian, a starry-eyed song-writing youth from Lima, Ohio who seeks his fortune in the show's confectionary Paris.

It's hard to understate the value of Ryan's precisely calibrated on-stage attitude. He embodies both the audience's desire to get swept up in a spectacular romance and its simultaneous awareness that this is all a grandiose giggle.

Ryan's not a part of the show's opening song-and-dance routine to a mash up of Labelle's "Lady Marmalade," Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House," the Commodores' "Brick House," an effortfully sexy number which raises concerns that the evening will amount to little more than a hard-selling Vegas revue.

But then he saunters in and, with brief interludes of fourth-wall breaking narration and ever-so-gentle conspiratorial eye-rolling, makes us feel like we're all in the driver's seat rather than being steamrolled into submission.

Ryan is also a wonderfully versatile singer, leaning into a folky Jason Mraz style early on, then busting out gargantuan Groban-esque chops in a second-act hallucination sequence. And yes, Bay Area Reporter readers, he is adorbs: Lean and lanky with long, yankable locks that may bring steamrolling into submission of another kind to mind.

Ryan is also very tall and it's a hoot to watch him in duets with much shorter leading lady Courtney Reed. He needs to bow his legs and bend his knees to make the requisite romantic eye contact. As the showgirl and courtesan Satine, Reed delivers a solid but less distinctive performance.

In addition to Ryan, two other cast members deserve special mention: Austin Durant, playing Harold Zidler, the ringmaster-like overseer of the titular Montmartre nightclub, also does a terrific job at engaging the audience, his broad comedic presence more Borscht belt than onion soup gratinée.

And as Toulouse Lautrec, baritone André Ward delivers every line and tune —including a soul-stirring "Nature Boy"—with a commitment and command that tops all the show's whirligig trimmings. Should he ever bring a solo cabaret show to town, I'll be first in line.

David Harris as The Duke in the North American Tour of Moulin Rouge! The Musical (photo: Matthew Murphy/MurphyMade)  

Hum just a few bars
The other secret weapon in "Moulin Rouge" is its jukebox-meets-microwave musical score, deftly assembled and arranged by Justin Levine. Close to a hundred bits and bobs —mostly from Top 40 pop songs, but with shavings of Piaf, opera and tango sprinkled in— arrive in a delirious non-stop wiggle. It's an orgy of earworms.

While there are small-print copyright acknowledgements in its back pages, the "Moulin Rouge" Playbill doesn't include the conventional listing of songs, in order of performance, provided at musicals. Even more than characters occasionally addressing the audience directly, the collage/barrage of memory-jogging tunes keeps the crowd deeply engaged and on the edge of its seats, momentarily oohing, aahing and cracking smiles each time it recognizes another familiar shiny shard of sound.

It would take another thousand words to seriously ponder the cultural import of Broadway leaning hard on nostalgia and borrowed interest (turning movies into musicals; using pop songs as scores).

But even as it openly plays with clichés, "Moulin Rouge" is too creative, quick-witted and flat-out fun to be singled out as an example of What's Wrong With Musical Theater Today.

"Moulin Rouge" is more than a stage show, it's also a brainy pop aficionadoes' game show: "Name That Tune," or perhaps more appropriate to its naughty vibe, "Shazam, Bam, Thank-you-ma'am."

Also, on your way in, check out local queer artist Diego Gomez' commissioned colorful four-panel murals outside the theater, which visualize the show's themes.

'Moulin Rouge! The Musical,' through November 6. $56-$256. Orpheum Theatre, 1156 Market St. (888) 746-1799. www.broadwaysf.com

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