Moulin Rouge! The Musical at Broadway at the Hobby: Earworms and Bustiers Galore and, of Course, L'Amour!

Conor Ryan delivers a true star turn as Christian in the national tour of Moulin Rouge! The Musical at Broadway at the Hobby.
Conor Ryan delivers a true star turn as Christian in the national tour of Moulin Rouge! The Musical at Broadway at the Hobby. Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

When I saw Moulin Rouge! The Musical on Broadway after Covid-19 restrictions had been lifted and theaters had tentatively re-opened, the only seat available for the 2021 Tony-winning Best Musical (still packing them in at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre) was in the front row.

Below the “catwalk” that curved around the stage, looking straight up at the actors, the view was definitely close and personal. The secrets of Paris' Belle Epoque demimonde could not be avoided. The razor burn was inescapable. And that was on the chorus boys.

Excess, thy name is Moulin Rouge.

Adapted from Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce's 2001 cult film extravaganza with its sweeping aerial views of Montmartre with those exquisitely false CGI Parisian rooftops, this cinematic jukebox musical struck a chord in all Romantics. Poaching freely from operas La Boheme and La Traviata, a bit of Greek myth Orpheus and Euridice, a nod to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and a loving homage to those Ernst Lubitsch '30s Paramount classics with Maurice Chevalier,

Moulin Rouge was unlike anything before. How could it be anything other, when a giant neon sign proclaiming “L'Amour” and a full moon loom prominently in the background during the lovers' tryst in the garret. Starring a statuesque Nicole Kidman as cabaret courtesan Satine and Ewan MacGregor as dewy handsome naif Christian, the movie was improbably intense, chaotic, super-charged, and over-heated. It reinvigorated the Hollywood musical and made a fortune for 20th Century Fox.

A Broadway musical had to follow.

But with any jukebox musical, composers' rights must be sought and permission given. It took years for Luhrmann to secure the rights to the 70+ songs and snippets he used in the film, but the musical was something “new and original” so the process of securing rights had to begin again. Also, in the intervening years younger pop singers had appeared whose music would give the show freshness and relevance, like Katy Perry, Beyoncė, Adele and Rihanna. It took more years until the musical was legally ready for its 2019 Broadway premiere.

Then COVID shut it down in 2020, along with all of Broadway, and it wasn't until September, 2021, that it re-opened on Broadway to spectacular reviews and a subsequent haul of ten Tony Awards, deserving all of them – Musical; Direction, Alex Timbers; Choreography, Sonya Tayeh; Music Supervision and Arrangement, Justin Levine; Lighting, Justin Townsend; Costumes, Catherine Zuber; Sets, Derek McLane; Sound, Peter Hylenski; Actor, Aaron Tveit; Supporting Actor, Danny Burstein.

This first national tour, presented by Broadway at the Hobby, is excessive, too, but in all the good ways. Although smaller in scale than on Broadway, Moulin Rouge still knocks your garters off. (Holy Ziegfeld, the entire Hirschfeld theater was retro-fitted to look like the inside of the iconic venue with more velvet swags and oriental exoticisms than the original in Pigalle.) On tour, the sets are minimized, not as solid, a little flatter, there's no catwalk, but the vibe is spot-on: those receding hearts, outlined in pulsating marquee lights; the edges of the drops edged in neon; the rooftops of Paris tilted just so; those plumed headdresses.

There are plenty of bustiers and comely showgirls to sport them; hunky boys also in bustiers and fishnets; silk top hats and luxurious satin dresses from the ateliers of Worth; neon-colored Can-Can skirts; vibrant, dazzling lighting that is a primer on how to light a Broadway show; whiplash choreography and movement that never stops; and a golden-oldie mashup of Sting, Madonna, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cab Calloway, Phil Collins, the Eurythmics, Dolly Parton, Jule Stein, Georges Bizet, and scores of others whose ear-worms have stayed inside your head since you first heard them. Sometimes the incongruity of these crowd favorites play havoc with the drama, causing twitters of gleeful recognition in the audience that keeps you slightly off-balance from what's going on, but that “Name That Tune” factor passes quickly because the show doesn't allow you to wait to catch up. It's moving forward and you'd better move with it.

Among all the tunes that speed by, the best of the lot is the film's original number “Come What May,” written by David Baerwald and Kevin Gilbert. Penned originally for Luhrmann's teen crime movie Romeo + Juliet, the Academy Awards wouldn't recognize the song as original to Moulin Rouge and booted it out of contention. It is a pop classic, for sure, a wonderful angst-filled wail to Love, which, of course, is the abiding theme of this show. Blissfully sung by Conor Ryan and Courtney Reed (Christian and Satine), it's the radiant glue that holds this musical together.

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Courtney Reed and Conor Ryan as Satine and Christian in Moulin Rouge! The Musical.
Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade
The cast is exemplary, young and vibrant or Broadway veterans. Ryan is the absolute stand-out. If this performance doesn't propel him into the ranks of superstar, the theater gods are deaf and dumb. What else are producers waiting for? Grab him, now. He possesses stage presence for days; he has a raspy multi-colored voice that can break hearts or scale the screechy heights of any rock score; his timing is impeccable; and he has that innocence that belies a sexiness beneath the surface that is perfect for Christian. If nothing else, see the show for his stellar performance. He, too, will knock your garters off.

Unfortunately, Reed disappoints. Broadway's original Princess Jasmine in Disney's Aladdin, she's a bit out of her depth as Satine. There's no danger to her, no great seductress. She poses and sings very well, but as billed as Paris' most famous courtesan, she seems over-hyped and somewhat pallid. There's something to be said for staging. When she doesn't descend from the flies for her trapeze entrance – her “Diamond” medley – and appears already in mid-air when the curtain goes up, a lot of her Siren charm gets lost. When you lose your star turn, it's difficult to get it back.

Nick Rashad Burroughs' sad-sack Toulouse-Lautrec is lovingly limned with his poignant “Lonely Boy” rendition that quiets the theater. He'd stop the show if this kaleidoscopic musical would allow it. Gabe Martinez, as hot-to-trot Santiago, heats up the joint with the sultry dance number “Backstage Romance;” Austin Durant, as the grafting, grasping cabaret owner Zidler, displays appropriate bluster and charlatan charm; and Satine's fellow “denizens of the underworld,” are seductively gyrated by Nicci Claspell, Libby Lloyd, Tamrin Goldberg and Andrés Quintero. The non-stop demimonde ensemble – all feathers, high heels, and toned sinews – is first-rate. Andrew Brewer (understudy for Christian on Broadway), as the oily Duke of Monroth lusting after Satine, is smarmy personified in Mick Jagger and Keith Richard's sinewy “Sympathy for the Devil.”

It might profess to be about love, but Moulin Rouge traffics in spangles, showbiz, and razzle-dazzle. Like its fabled progenitor, it beats you about the head with sexy posturing, steamy come-ons, the promise of smutty sex, and maybe, just maybe, Love. That's enough for any musical. Life's no longer a cabaret, old friend, it's a jukebox musical with a slug of absinthe. As they say in another classic, “We'll always have Paris.” Don't miss this modern classic.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical continues through March 12 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday March 12 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For more information, call 800-982-2787 or visit or $35-$165.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover