PROVIDENCE – “Gitchie, gitchie, ya-ya, da-da (hey, hey, hey)/Gitchie, gitchie, ya-ya, here.”
This inane lyric from LaBelle’s 1974 hit song “Lady Marmalade,” which opens John Logan’s Tony Award-winning "Moulin Rouge! The Musical," speaks volumes about everything that comes after.
These words and the sexually suggestive song that surrounds them welcome audiences to the uninhibited, wildly decadent Moulin Rouge nightclub in Paris at the dawn of the 20th century. It’s here where a young, penniless American composer named Christian (Christian Douglas) comes to lose himself in the dazzling chaos of poets and painters, musicians and writers. He befriends Santiago (Danny Burgos) and Toulouse-Lautrec (Nick Rashad Burroughs), who are writing a new play and in need of a songwriter, and soon becomes infatuated with Satine (Gabrielle McClinton), the club’s alluring headliner. “Lady Marmalade” serves to create a world where cheap sex and meaningless promises come into direct conflict with true and selfless love.
This lyric is just the first of many that come from a song list consisting of pieces and parts of other people’s ’70s and ’80s pop hits rather than an original score devised by Broadway composers. For those of us of a certain age, these tunes were the soundtrack of our young lives, which guarantees that we are immediately and effortlessly drawn into the musical. And these songs have been painstakingly handpicked and carefully curated so that their words and music so complement the story and facilitate the storytelling that they are sure to lure even those who are unfamiliar with them.
The lyric is embedded in an elaborate, dazzlingly over-the-top production number saturated with delicious eye candy and delightful empty calories in the form of Sonya Tayeh’s seductive cabaret choreography and Derek McLane’s sets, Catherine Zuber’s costumes and Justin Townsend’s ostentatious lighting designs. And there are more production numbers like this to come. When you walk into PPAC’s playhouse and glance at what this touring production has brought to the stage, it’s hard to know just where the overly ornate theater ends and "Moulin Rouge! The Musical" begins.
This musical is based on the 2001 film of the same name that was co-written and directed by Baz Luhrmann. It, too, was an absinthe-infused jukebox musical that featured the same storyline and iconic songs, save for some more recent hits like “Hey Ya” by Outkast, “Firework” by Katy Perry, “Chandelier” by Sia and Lady Gaga's “Bad Romance.” Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert noted that “the movie is all color and music, sound and motion, kinetic energy, broad strokes, operatic excess,” all of which is encased in hyper-real cinematography and melodramatic camp.
That’s where the film and the touring reproduction differ. Under Alex Timbers’ direction, there are still very cinematic moments taking place on stage – particularly in the framing and lighting of the choreography – but there’s no hyper-reality and no camp. And the over-the-top fare that so dominated the film and the early part of the musical on stage seamlessly transitions into a greater investment in the love story. And so flamboyant can-can choreography is traded in for gorgeous modern dance and delicate ballet. Overstimulating orchestration and excessive production values become more subtle artistic expressions. And everything big and bold in the storytelling becomes slighter, softer and poignant. And you never see it coming.
The immediately likable Douglas as Christian, triple-threat McClinton as Satine and roguish Robert Petkoff as Moulin Rouge’s twisted master of ceremonies Harold Zidler are all built for both the over-the-top and more sedated theatrical aesthetics. So are the other featured performers. But it’s the remarkable ensemble that nearly steals the show. They make all the hard work seem effortless and never lose focus or precision throughout this two-hour-and-25-minute production.
For those who might find “Gitchie, gitchie, ya-ya, da-da” a deterrent for attendance, fear not. "Moulin Rouge! The Musical" is, at its very core, very much an old-fashioned boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl Broadway musical. It’s a sexualized "She Loves Me." Think "Cabaret" but without the politics. Or the score by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Or Bob Fosse. But brilliant none-the-less.
BOB ABELMAN is an award-winning theater critic who formerly wrote for the Austin Chronicle and Cleveland Jewish News.