‘Moulin Rouge!’ Broadway Review: Director Alex Timbers Is No Baz Luhrmann

The director continues not to impress with his latest movie-to-stage musical after “Rocky” and “Beetlejuice”

moulin rouge
Photo: Matthew Murphy

Get to the Al Hirschfeld Theatre early if you have tickets to the new musical “Moulin Rouge!,” which opened Thursday. Theatergoers clog the aisles right up to curtain time to take selfies in front of Derek McLane’s glittering re-creation of the famed Montmartre cabaret, framed on the Hirschfeld stage by a sparkling windmill in one mezzanine box and a larger-than-life blue elephant in the opposite one.

If memory serves, McLane has taken Boris Aronson’s heart-shaped, powder-puff Loveland set from the original “Follies,” expanded it, added half the gold from Fort Knox and turned it into a rococo whorehouse under Justin Townsend’s hot-to-the-glance lighting design. Why waste a curtain to hide such blinding excess pre-show when hundreds of theatergoers every night can provide free advertising on Facebook and Instagram, announcing to friends, “I’m here and you’re not”?

Under the direction of Alex Timbers, a veteran of movie-to-stage musicals like “Rocky” and “Beetlejuice,” “Moulin Rouge!” re-creates that pre-show pandemonium only twice during the show itself and once again at the curtain call. Too often the stage musical gets bogged down in John Logan’s uninspired book, which poorly mimics Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film about the consumptive cabaret courtesan Satine (Karen Olivo), who makes the mistake of falling in love with a novice composer named Christian (Aaron Tveit) when she’s supposed to be bedding the wealthy Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu).

Copying the film, Satine’s entrance from the rafters dazzles as she offers an amalgam of Madonna (“Material Girl”) and Marilyn Monroe (“Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”), now enhanced by a nod to Beyoncé (“Put a Ring on It”). This musical mashing-up resurfaces in equally high style when Act 2 kicks off, literally, with an homage to “Too Darn Hot” from “Kiss Me, Kate,” sung to Annie Lennox’s “Sweet Dreams” and a half dozen — maybe it’s a full dozen — other pop favorites. “Moulin Rouge!” on Broadway is the ultimate jukebox musical, offering extended covers, as well as snippets, from more than 70 familiar songs.

But you know the second act is stuck outside the 20th arrondissement when the opening “Can-Can” and “Lady Marmalade” medley are repeated for the curtain call, the chorus boys now wearing black top hats and tails over white tulle skirts (the lavish costumes are by Catherine Zuber). Until that rousing finish, Satine’s slow-motion demise resembles Violetta Valery on Valium, without the Verdi.

Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” and “Australia” prove that this film director has problems telling a good story, but at least his “Moulin Rouge!” visuals display a flashy music-video consistency. In Timbers’ stage musical, the show collapses under the weight of Logan’s book as soon as any one stops singing and begins regurgitating plot points from “La Traviata,” “Manon Lescaut,” “Adriana Lecouvreur” and “Cabaret.” What drives the two showstoppers and curtain call are Sonya Tayeh’s sex-charged choreography. Without her steps, Timbers stumbles over Logan’s logorrhea.

Tveit’s pliant tenor handles the massive leaps from Richard Rodgers to Elton John and beyond. What he can’t do is bring any edge or sexual danger to Christian, now an émigré from Ohio. (Ewan McGregor’s movie Christian hails from England.) Alongside him, Olivo sounds merely brassy regardless of what she’s given to sing. Her mantra that “the world must hear his music!” sounds bizarre given that Christian’s songs are credited to 100-plus different composers and lyricists.

Danny Burstein’s impresario owns the Moulin Rouge. He’s essentially the evening’s emcee, and appears left over from Sam Mendes’ vintage “Cabaret” at Studio 54.