Pop goes the 'Moulin Rouge!': Broadway adaptation dazzles on so many levels

  • The Duke of Monroth (David Harris), seated center, gets an on-the-spot pitch to finance a new stage show by Toulouse-Lautrec (André Ward), left, Satine (Elgin native Courtney Reed), Christian (Conor Ryan), Harold Zidler (Austin Durant) and Santiago (Gabe Martínez) in the North American tour of "Moulin Rouge! The Musical" at the James M. Nederlander Theatre in Chicago.

    The Duke of Monroth (David Harris), seated center, gets an on-the-spot pitch to finance a new stage show by Toulouse-Lautrec (André Ward), left, Satine (Elgin native Courtney Reed), Christian (Conor Ryan), Harold Zidler (Austin Durant) and Santiago (Gabe Martínez) in the North American tour of "Moulin Rouge! The Musical" at the James M. Nederlander Theatre in Chicago. Courtesy of Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

 
 
Updated 4/22/2022 3:36 PM

"Moulin Rouge! The Musical" -- ★ ★ ★ ½

What's that sound that ripples throughout "Moulin Rouge! The Musical," the 10-time Tony Award-winning show now nearing the end of its dazzling North American tour debut at Chicago's James M. Nederlander Theatre?

 

Why, it's chuckles of audience recognition each time a character living in late-19th-century Paris starts to anachronistically sing Top 40 pop songs written in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Satine (Elgin native Courtney Reed) wows a crowd of suitors by singing a medley of diamond-inspired pop songs in the North American tour of "Moulin Rouge! The Musical."
Satine (Elgin native Courtney Reed) wows a crowd of suitors by singing a medley of diamond-inspired pop songs in the North American tour of "Moulin Rouge! The Musical." - Courtesy of Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

But these "ah-ha" snickers are largely affectionate. They reveal how much director Baz Luhrmann's landmark 2001 film "Moulin Rouge!" and other hit jukebox musical entities like "Mamma Mia!" and "Glee" helped to popularize the practice of shoehorning existing pop songs into new scripts.

So it should come as no surprise that this 2019 Broadway stage adaptation re-imagined by playwright/screenwriter John Logan feels even more au currant with the addition of more recent pop properties. Songs by the likes of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Adele are now in a new rotation to tell the story of Satine (Elgin native Courtney Reed), a poverty-driven sex worker who becomes the sparkling diamond star of the Moulin Rouge nightclub.

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Satine (Elgin native Courtney Reed) and Christian (Conor Ryan) declare their love in song in "Moulin Rouge! The Musical." The 10-time Tony Award-winning show, which launched its national tour at Chicago's James M. Nederlander Theatre, runs through May 14.
Satine (Elgin native Courtney Reed) and Christian (Conor Ryan) declare their love in song in "Moulin Rouge! The Musical." The 10-time Tony Award-winning show, which launched its national tour at Chicago's James M. Nederlander Theatre, runs through May 14. - Courtesy of Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

Satine's orbit of suitors are many. They include an idealistic (and Americanized) expat songwriter named Christian (Conor Ryan), who narrates the story in flashback. There's also the sinister Duke of Monroth (David Harris), who is convinced to bankroll the Moulin Rouge in order to possess Satine. And there's Toulouse-Lautrec (André Ward), the real-life diminutive artist who documented the seedy reality of Montmartre night life, but is re-imagined here more as a playwright with an unrequited love for Satine.

Satine also bears the weight of financially supporting her cash-strapped Moulin Rouge peers. These colorful characters include the openly gay impresario Harold Zidler (Austin Durant), her ambitious understudy Nini (Libby Lloyd), her new Argentine choreographer beau Santiago (Gabe Martínez), and the drag artiste Baby Doll (Andres Quintero).

Christian (Conor Ryan), left, is offered his first taste of absinthe by Santiago (Gabe Martínez), Toulouse-Lautrec (André Ward) and Harold Zidler (Austin Duran) in "Moulin Rouge! The Musical."
Christian (Conor Ryan), left, is offered his first taste of absinthe by Santiago (Gabe Martínez), Toulouse-Lautrec (André Ward) and Harold Zidler (Austin Duran) in "Moulin Rouge! The Musical." - Courtesy of Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Oh yes, Satine is also a cousin to 19th-century opera heroines like Violetta in "La Traviata" and Mimi in "La Bohème" since she, too, is dying of consumption (tuberculosis). This could all be melodramatically too much, but in our current age of COVID-19, in which breakthrough cases delayed the official Chicago press opening of "Moulin Rouge!" from April 6 to April 21, it feels uncomfortably prescient.

While director Alex Timbers and choreographer Sonya Tayeh do not entirely run away from the campy silliness of the entire enterprise, they also expertly embrace the seriousness of all dramatic stakes involved. The characters' emotional honesty is palpable -- particularly in the central romance with the fine-voiced Conor Ryan as Christian and the glamorous Courtney Reed as the love-torn Satine.

Michelle Sessoms and Jennifer Wolfe play cancan dancers in "Moulin Rouge! The Musical" at Chicago's James M. Nederlander Theatre.
Michelle Sessoms and Jennifer Wolfe play cancan dancers in "Moulin Rouge! The Musical" at Chicago's James M. Nederlander Theatre. - Courtesy of Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

And you can't help but feel you get your money's worth when it comes to designer Derek McLane's sumptuous environmental fin-de-siècle set designs, Catherine Zuber's opulent costumes and Justin Townsend's flashy lighting.

If eyes popping and jaws dropping from the sensory overload of "Moulin Rouge! The Musical" was as loud as all the audience chuckling over its pop music, that would be the dominant punctuating crowd sound. There's no escaping how "Moulin Rouge!" continually wows with its show of exuberant style and excess.

• • •

Location: James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000, broadwayinchicago.com

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday (no evening show April 24; extra 2 p.m. matinees May 11 and 12); through May 14

Tickets: $59-$149; $209 premium seating

Running time: About 2 hours, 35 minutes, including intermission

Parking: Area pay garages

Rating: Scantily clad ensemble members, strong sexuality

COVID-19 precautions: Proof of vaccination and masks required

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