Moulin Rouge returns to Melbourne. Why? Because they can can can

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Moulin Rouge! The Musical ★★★
Regent Theatre, until December 31

If there’s one word for Moulin Rouge! The Musical, it’s excess. Like Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, on which it is loosely based, this production is all about glitz and glam, with eye-popping (if not slightly tacky) stage design, choreography, costuming and colour. The theatre is transformed into the interior of the titular club – a lit-up windmill spins, and a five-metre tall elephant looms over the crowd. Performers swallow swords and descend from the ceiling. There’s confetti and pyrotechnics.

(L-R) Bert La Bonté as Toulouse- Lautrec, Alinta Chidzey as Satine, James Bryers as The Duke, Des Flanagan as Christian, Simon Burke AO as Harold Zidler, Ryan Gonzalez as Santiago.Credit: Chris Parker

The spectacular musical is back in Melbourne after a sellout season in 2021, which signalled a post-COVID return to splashy, big-ticket theatre. The cast is again led by Alinta Chidzey and Des Flanagan as Satine and Christian – the Moulin Rouge’s top courtesan and a bohemian American writer vying for her affections.

Since the show last played, a challenger has appeared: it’s difficult not to compare Moulin Rouge! The Musical to new kid on the block & Juliet. Both are jukebox musicals, but where & Juliet leans into campiness and uses its music (all by Swedish hitmaker Max Martin) cohesively, Moulin Rouge! The Musical goes – again – for excess.

The sheer number of pop songs shoehorned into the show – around 70 – is exhausting. Most are peppered in as one-liners, feeling more like a game of “name that tune” than anything substantial. Some of it works well – the opening number, including Lady Marmalade, is a treat, and a drunken descent to Sia’s Chandelier is literally intoxicating – but more often, songs are mashed haphazardly and pivotal points are diluted by limp choices (Satine singing Katy Perry’s Firework doesn’t pack the emotional punch the moment requires). Indeed, the best number is Come What May, the film’s only original track – Chidzey and Flanagan’s voices meld beautifully.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical is all about glitz and glam.Credit: Michelle Grace Hunder

This musical gluttony comes at the expense of character and plot development – it’s hard to feel much for any of these characters when we’re barely given the chance to know them. The subject matter also feels dated, as Christian and a wealthy benefactor, The Duke (James Bryers), fight over Satine; Christian’s characterisation in particular verges on manipulative, and the language can be paternalistic. While this version does give Satine more agency than a fully tragic heroine, she ultimately remains a catalyst for a man’s self-actualisation.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical is a feast for all the senses – it looks stunning and the performances are mostly strong. It has style in spades and it’s impossible not to feel wowed by its enormous scope – but it leaves a feeling of emptiness.

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