Outside London’s Piccadilly Theatre, beneath a sign promoting “Truth, Beauty, Freedom, Love”, I had an ungenerous thought: is Moulin Rouge! The Musical a poor man’s Cabaret? Only, a mile down the road there’s a show on that has everything this one has – burlesque, bohemians, unadulterated bangers – but also Eddie Redmayne in a tank-top. Of course, musical theatre doesn’t really cater to poor men: tickets to Moulin Rouge aren’t cheap, but over at the Kit Kat Club they’re charging £200 entry for a midweek matinee in March. Still, the West End is now home to two rival nightclubs, and looking around, I start to worry all the cool kids are at the one down the road.
But wait, never mind. The underdog production is a reassuringly over-the-top one. My fears start to dissipate in a puff of dry ice – and weren’t they misplaced anyway? After all, this fin-de-siècle spectacular, based on Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 screen musical (which took $179m at the box office) is a Broadway import, baby; it’s already won ten Tonys. The budget is so big, the energy is so brash: nothing says “don’t worry about us” like a production that opens with sword-swallowers, scantily clad, withdrawing sabres from their throats. In the royal box there is a large, bejewelled elephant and around the stage concentric arches – golden, lace-like latticework – in the shape of a heart. Everything is red-velvet opulence; everything is kitsch. Think Alan Carr: Chatty Man on the Las Vegas strip.
But first a recap, for the straight men among us. Luhrmann’s film transports us to Pigalle in 1900, where the seedy Moulin Rouge is on its knees and in dire need of funding, or a sell-out show. Our heroine is Satine (played in the film by a translucent Nicole Kidman), the club’s courtesan-in-chief, and our hero is Christian (Ewan McGregor), a pure and penniless writer with just the script for the job. Of course they’re star-crossed lovers, but it’s not syphilis – though there’s plenty of that around – keeping them apart, but a moustache-twisting Duke, to whom Satine is “promised” in exchange for his investment. That’s not all: the courtesan, we discover, has consumption. It’s a death sentence.
When Moulin Rouge! came out, it was loftily described as “postmodern”, for all its winks and nods, its self-reflexivity and its repurposing of old tropes and tunes. But beneath the irony lurked a hysterical sentimentalism, and a grittiness too: this maximalist musical is, after all, a story about exploitation, with hints at sexual violence. It is an ecstatic tribute to showbusiness that withholds a happy ending. It is – in some ways, for some people – devastating.
On stage, however, that emotional heft is gone. The musical is neither as dark nor as funny as the film. I know, I’m a killjoy. I know I’m not supposed to take it seriously, but the jokes were bad and the comic timing cringe-inducing. Granted, the stage has limitations that the screen does not – no zany jump-cuts, no crash-zooms or creepy special effects. But this attempt to re-energise a 20-year-old movie made the whole thing feel tired. Lifeless, even. A high-octane opening number, with death-drops and pyrotechnics, is enchanting, but turns out to be a tease: the pace plummets and with it the adrenaline. Where Baz Luhrmann drove at breakneck speed, the gear changes in this adaptation seem to screech.
There’s much to see and little to feel. The romantic leads, trying to summon up sexual chemistry, are part of the problem. In the film we have two actors, one of whom cannot sing (Kidman), one of whom can (I still get shivers when I hear McGregor belt out “Your Song”). They have the advantage: their flaws can be wiped away in post-production, and the stage demands more of its performers. But here, we have two (excellent) singers, who sort-of act, and don’t do dancing. Liisi LaFontaine is a sassy Satine to Kidman’s coquette; her voice is powerful – deep and rich – but I’ve seen my father put more welly into a figure-of-eight. Jamie Bogyo plays Christian in a choirboy way: pitch-perfect, yet gormless and unsure.
“You ladies just make me look good,” Satine tells her ensemble, to outraged protestations. But not from me. The chorus carried it: no one in their spidery suspenders puts a step wrong. There go the can-can dancers, skirts bursting out like technicolour lichen; ladies in corsets fly through the air, held aloft by their partners or on a trapeze. Much heavy lifting is going on.
On the music front, I’ll let you down gently. Apparently it took Luhrmann two and a half years to secure the rights to the songs, which were surprising and anachronistic, a mixtape of Dolly Parton and David Bowie, T-Rex and the Police. For the stage show, which includes 70 songs credited to 161 artists, the music supervisor Justin Levine has departed from the original score, replacing some of the golden oldies with the shiny and new (including one punchy mash-up of “Bad Romance”, “Toxic” and “Seven Nation Army”). It’s impressive but also irksome: where did all the chart-toppers come from? While Moulin Rouge does stress-test one’s ability to suspend disbelief, the whole thing depends on a central conceit: that Christian has written the world’s greatest pop songs. Elton John? I can believe it. Whitney Houston? Absolutely. But Katy Perry’s “Firework”? Now you’ve lost me.
The audience is loving it, though, all claps and cheers and singing in the stalls. I watch on with a mix of bafflement and envy. It is, dare I say it, like arriving at a party, but being unsure if it counts as one. The playlist is predictable, and the star guest never showed. He’s in a tank-top at the club down the road.