By JESSICA NEU
From the moment you walk into the Benedum Center auditorium, Moulin Rouge! The Musical hits different from other musicals. Perhaps that difference is because Scenic Designer Derek McLane transformed the Benedum into the Paris’ Moulin Rouge, the famous club dating back to the late 1800s initially opened to provide a place for the rich to come and slum in a fashionable district where people lived differently from the aristocrats. The Benedum becomes an electrifying, dynamic, interactive, and visually stunning environment for the next 2 hours and 35 minutes, where the audience experiences life as a bohemian and becomes a part of the desperation, debauchery, and diamonds of the Moulin Rouge.
Based on the 2001 Baz Luhrmann film of the same name, Moulin Rouge! The Musical tells the story of Christian (Christian Douglas), a young and somewhat naïve playwright who comes to Paris to find himself, just as any starving young artist does. He befriends Santiago (Danny Burgos) and Toulouse-Lautrec (Nick Rashad Burroughs) there. Together, they embrace the bohemian life of truth, beauty, freedom, and love.
The trio ventures to the Moulin Rouge so Christian can arrange an audition with headline performer Satine (Gabrielle McClinton). Christian hopes to pitch Satine his idea for his new musical and that she will agree to star in the production. Moulin Rouge owner Harold Zidler (Robert Petkoff) has also arranged for Satine to meet with the Duke of Monroth (Andrew Brewer) as Zidler hopes that the Duke will invest in the financially struggling club so he, Satine, and the ensemble showgirls will not end up back on the streets, performing for donations.
As both men pine for Satine’s love and affection, she quickly discovers she is in love with Christian. However, she understands the necessity of sacrificing true love for the betterment of the Moulin Rouge and agrees to a courtship with the Duke. In exchange for this relationship, the Duke has agreed to invest in the club as the owner and ultimate authoritarian of the Moulin Rouge.
The love triangle between Christian, Satine, and the Duke intensifies as the club members come together to produce Christian’s musical. The truth and love of the bohemian ideal become apparent while beauty and freedom become somewhat marginalized.
Anyone familiar with the film Moulin Rouge will recognize several famous numbers from the movie’s soundtrack. With the original book by John Logan, director Alex Timbers and music supervisor Justin Levine cleverly altered the arrangement of each number so audiences do not hear an exact replica of Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman’s original works. This reimaging helps to create a unique experience as the sets are similar to the films but not exact replicas, as the theater relies on the audience’s suspension of disbelief instead of CGI effects to create illusions and fantastical settings.
Also different from the movie is the rich character development that explores the relationships between Christian, Santiago, and Toulouse-Lautrec. The musical explores the bohemian theme more deeply than in the film. This theme gives the stage production a gritty, Rent-esque vibe that highlights the character’s desperation and starkly contrasts the over-the-top, vivacious Can-Can and burlesque aesthetic of the Moulin Rouge.
Petkoff tells audiences that the Moulin Rouge is a “place in the corner of your mind where your fantasies live.” McLane impeccably brings more than I could have ever imagined to life through their set design. Perfectly matching the nuance of each scene, McLane uses dynamic textures, colors, and effects to transport us to Paris over a century ago. Justin Townsend’s lighting design stuns as various lighting elements illuminate Satine’s diamonds, drapes stars over a Parisian night sky, and portrays jealousy and contempt as tensions grow amidst Satine, Christian, and the Duke.
As engaging as the sets and lighting are, the vocal and acting talent from Douglas, McClinton, Petkoff, Brewer, Burgos, and Burroughs make Moulin Rouge! The Musical a powerhouse production that will leave audiences simultaneously awestruck, laughing, crying…and let’s not forget…singing! The score by John Logan packs an unrivaled amount of hits into this jukebox musical, unlike any other production. Douglas and McClinton fill spaces of despair with emotion, beauty, and, above all, love. Their voices tackle seven decades of music ranging from Motown to 80s synth-pop to modern divas. Douglas and McClinton lead an emotionally charged show all the way to its beautifully cathartic ending.
Toward the end of the show, Toulouse-Lautrec reminds audiences that great theater functions as a mirror for the audience to reflect upon themselves as a moment of inquiry and self-reflection. As Satine grapples with resolving her love triangle and whether to choose love or security for the greater whole, she states, “I don’t need your sympathy, I need your strength.”
Allow Moulin Rouge! The Musical to hold up that mirror of self-reflection. What will you find in the corners of your imagination? Truth? Beauty? Freedom? Bohemia? Or perhaps the greatest virtue of all is to have loved and have been loved in return.
TICKETS AND DETAILS
The Pittsburgh Cultural Trusts’ PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series presents Moulin Rouge! The Musical at the Benedum Center from now through Sunday, October 8th, 2023