She’s back and better than ever and all is right with the world.
She shines bright like a rare diamond, glittering and gleaming anew. Promise you’ll never scare us like that again, okay?
Oh, hold on. I’m sorry. You probably thought I was talking about the newly renovated Emerson Colonial Theatre, the theatrical temple that was very close to being turned into a dining hall. Yes—she looks good too.
But I’m referring in this instance to Karen Olivo, an actress of immeasurable talent and spark, who, a few years after taking home the 2009 Tony Award for West Side Story, left New York City for Wisconsin and essentially retired from acting, save for a few short-term gigs with buddy Lin-Manuel Miranda.
But she’s back, making her entrance on a swing, no less, and reminding us all how much we missed her, one of musical theater’s most underused talents.
The occasion, as you might have heard (is there any buzz around this show?), is the world premiere of Moulin Rouge! The Musical, a brand-new, Broadway-bound adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s beloved 2001 film. This hotly anticipated musical, with a book by the great John Logan (Red; The Aviator), is a relentlessly gorgeous and sinfully decadent orgy for the eyes and ears. Alex Timbers, wunderkind director of oddities like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Here Lies Love, is at the helm.
The Emerson Colonial Theatre has been transformed into the Moulin Rouge, the Paris nightclub where creatures of the underworld roam, work, and play, and penniless bohemians rub elbows with the elite. Its main attraction is Satine (Olivo), the greatest courtesan in Paris. The musical’s treatment of Satine is one of its chief departures from the film; Nicole Kidman’s film Satine was a breathy, flirtatious minx whose dreams of becoming a legitimate actress keep her going. Instead of being motivated by dreams, the musical’s Satine is motivated by her fear of being back on the streets (her past is seedier here) and is thereby tethered to whatever it is that’s going to keep the Moulin Rouge open. That’s also one of the musical’s problems: Satine isn’t much of a dreamer, and her attraction to Christian (more on him in a second) is harder to buy. In the film, they are undeniably kindred spirits, their feet just always a little bit off the ground. Here, Satine’s feet are firmly planted.
The Moulin Rouge is having serious money problems and is nearly on life support. Passionate proprietor and devilish emcee Harold Zidler (the always magnificent Danny Burstein) is relying on the financial support of a rich duke (Tam Mutu) to keep the place going, and Satine is who Zidler is counting on to entice him. But when a young, handsome poet named Christian arrives from America (an incredible Aaron Tveit), he falls instantly in love with Satine. There, as they say, is the rub.
As Luhrmann did so innovatively in his film, pop music is treated like high art in Moulin Rouge! Present in the film were songs like Elton John’s “Your Song,” DeBarge’s “Rhythm of the Night,” and Sting’s “Roxanne”—all of which have survived the screen-to-stage adaptation. But the musical’s score draws heavily from the Top 40 pop hits of the 2000s, resulting in a dizzying and gluttonous array of guilty pleasure earworms that—like it or not—you probably know all of the words to.
Not all songs are performed in their entirety. In fact, most are either mashed up with something else or just stick around for a line or two (Justin Levine deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the music). That’s right—Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Florence + the Machine, Pink, OutKast, Adele, and Beyoncé have finally made it to the stage. I loved every shameless second of it, and my gay heart has still not fully returned to its regular rhythm after the mind-blowing Act II opener, a mashup of “Toxic,” “Bad Romance,” and “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” The choreography, by Sonya Tayeh, is fast, ferocious, and fierce.
Karen Olivo is unimaginably terrific and somehow manages to be both desperately broken and alluringly confident not only in the same scene but in the same moment. As the lovesick American poet, Aaron Tveit is just about perfect; there is even heartache in his walk, and Tony Awards have been won for less than his raw, tear- (and spit-) soaked version of “Roxanne.” Sahr Ngaujah (brilliant in Fela!) is heartbreaking as Toulouse-Lautrec, and Ricky Rojas smolders as Santiago, Christian’s two best friends and fellow penniless artistes. The ensemble as a whole—particularly Robyn Hurder, Jacqueline B. Arnold, Holly James, and Jeigh Madjus—who nearly stop the show with their go-hard-or-go-home “Lady Marmalade,” are extraordinary. (And how nice to see a cast of all colors and sizes.)
It is no surprise that Moulin Rouge! looks like a million bucks. To be exact, $28 million, and that includes Derek McLane’s game-changing set, Catherine Zuber’s costumes, and Justin Townsend’s lighting.
Still, there are some problems to work out. We don’t see Satine and Christian exist together on any human, everyday level as we do in the film, so it is harder to totally buy into their love story. In the film, they were lovesick for one another even when they were lying in bed together, and there is no opportunity for such magnetism in the musical. The audience must root for them to be together. There is also the matter of a certain illness that the musical treats haphazardly that doesn’t ring true. The outcome of this illness is communicated to the audience in the film’s prologue; it need not be kept a secret for so long in the musical.
Above all else, Moulin Rouge! is about a love so big and eternal that we must ache for it in the midst of all the glitz and glamour. Moulin Rouge! is already the most spectacular new musical in recent memory. With a little retooling, it might also be the most heartbreaking.
MOULIN ROUGE! THROUGH 8.19 AT THE EMERSON COLONIAL THEATRE, 106 BOYLSTON ST., BOSTON. EMERSONCOLONIALTHEATRE.COM