Moulin Rouge! The Musical can-can: This version of Baz’s movie rocks

Moulin Rouge! The Musical ★★★½
Crown Theatre, Burswood

When I first watched Moulin Rouge! I wanted to sue Baz Luhrmann for reckless endangerment. I was convinced I’d suffered head trauma.

The breakneck storytelling, the frenetic editing, the sensory assault, the cartoonish and in-your-face acting made it feel less like watching a movie, more like I’d been in a car crash.

Pleasingly old-fashioned: Alinta Chidzey as Satine (left of Eiffel Tower) and Des Flanagan as Christian (right of Eiffel Tower) in Moulin Rouge! The MusicalCredit:Michelle Grace Hunder

I’d received such a Baz battering they had to bring in the jaws of life to pry me out of my seat.

So you can imagine my trepidation while walking into Crown Theatre for the stage version of Luhrmann’s movie.

“Easy, big fella,” said my wife as I stumbled toward my seat, the looming set so bright that I kicked myself for not slapping on sunscreen, threatening and send me back to 2001 and that traumatic moment. Everything Everywhere All At Once-style.

For a few moments, it felt like Luhrmann was hiding in the wings calling the shots on Moulin Rouge! The Musical even though he promised to have nothing to do with the stage production, which has been written by leading playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator) and directed by Tony Award-winner Alex Timbers.

The chorus launched into Lady Marmalade, the movie’s signature tune, and we were back turn-of-the-century Paris and charging toward the head-spinning pop culture mashup, in which songs associated with Montmartre (Offenbach’s Can-Can, Edith Piaf’s Milord) collide – quite literally – with mid-century classics (Cab Calloway’s Hi-Di-Ho Man, The Sound of Music, Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend) and boomer favourites (Your Song, Roxanne).

Thankfully, Timbers and Logan haven’t attempted to emulate Luhrmann’s trauma-inducing visual assault (they simply couldn’t), opting instead to set the story entirely inside the Moulin Rouge and shifting the emphasis to the music, boosting the number of songs to 70 and adding a whole new dimension to the term “jukebox musical” (I would classify this one as a “Spotify musical”).

Now sitting alongside T-Rex’s Children of the Revolution and Fatboy Slim’s Because We Can are a raft of contemporary songs by Beyonce, Rihanna, Adele, Lorde, Sia, Pink, Florence + the Machine and The White Stripes. Indeed, there’s so much music in Moulin Rouge! The Musical it should be packed into a capsule and sent into space so other worlds know what ours is like (scary thought).

Simon Burke: impressive as the impresario Harold Zidler.Credit:Michelle Grace Hunder

While the veritable Niagara of numbers emulates the madcap rush of Luhrmann’s movie, the stage version is very traditional. It’s an all-singing, all-dancing putting-on-a-show musical of the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney variety, with the composer Christian (Des Flanagan), the showgirl Satine (Alinta Chidzey) and a bunch of bohos banding together to save the famed Montmartre cabaret.

Indeed, the scene in which Harold Zidler (a show-stealing Simon Burke) and the gang pitch their proposed show Spectacular Spectacular to the Duke (James Bryers) is wonderfully retro, a funny reworking of Edith Piaf’s Milord (“Along the Seine/Upon its filthy shore/The bloated corpses of those/Killed the night before/But it’s a family show/With art both high and low/A tale of love!/And death!/And sex!/And money!/Dancing, and away we go!”)

At times Moulin Rouge! The Musical is so traditional that it feels like a Mel Brooks spoof on a traditional America musical or Las Vegas style show. In fact, this eye-popping production should also have been Spectacular Spectacular (all that’s missing is feathers).

At times I wasn’t sure how deeply the creators had lodged their tongues in their cheeks, such as the new Rolling Stones-inspired sequence title Sympathy for the Duke. It’s a great addition – a blend of Sympathy for the Devil and You Can’t Always Get What You Want – but turns hilariously cheesy and very Mel Brooks when they are joined by an all-male chorus in top hats and tails.

While this amped-up version of the movie is very entertaining – the audience on the night I caught the show were in raptures from start to finish – the spectacle works against what is essentially a tragic love story.

It’s a lot of fun, the singing fabulous and the sets simply stunning, but when Satine coughs up blood and Christian reveals his love for his dying songbird you don’t feel a thing. It’s just more filler in between more great songs.

Also amusing is the fact that the actor playing Toulouse Lautrec appears to be the tallest of the main cast. So when the Duke threatens Lautrec with some variation on “little man” you have to smile. But why am I noticing Lautrec’s height when the bohos are punching the air singing T-Rex’s Children of the Revolution?

Great sets, spectacular dancing: Samantha Dodemaide as Nin and the cast of Moulin Rouge! The Musical.Credit:Michelle Grace Hunder

While that cranked-up versions of songs dominate the show for me the best moments are when the performances work against the originals – or get inside them and tap them for meanings and emotions that are not always evident (this was also the case in the movie).

TheYour Song scene, in which the young composer Christian first declares his love for Satine, is beautifully performed by Flanagan and Chidzey, injecting a note of truth and beauty into a mostly noisy show and the perfect counterpoint to Lady Marmalade as the show’s two most insistent numbers.

But the most surprising and memorable moment in Moulin Rouge! The Musical is when the Duke shows off Satine by dressing her in finery and taking for a stroll along the Champs Elysee, launching into a gorgeously restrained version of Rihanna’s Only Girl (In the World). Incredibly, WAAPA-trained Bryers turns the lyric “I want you to love me like I’m a hot ride” into a thing of beauty.

It made me laugh and swoon at once, which is something I get more from the musical than the movie, from which I am still struggling to recover. Moulin Rouge! The Musical is an excellent first step in my rehab.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical is on at Crown Theatre until April 21.

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