Even with its sizable box office and fan base (who ardently cheered in recognition throughout a recent preview performance), most people either loathe or adore “Moulin Rouge!,” with very little middle ground between the two extremes. Kidman’s divine performance notwithstanding, this reviewer was ready for Satine to croak by the 15-minute mark of Luhrmann’s exhausting film, which throws you into a melee of cacophonous medleys and flashy quick cuts that never lets up.
Alex Timbers’ musical, with a book by John Logan, is still a bombastic assault on the senses, and occasionally its anachronistic music cues are more eye-rolling than endearing.
Rihanna’s fist-pumping club anthem “Only Girl (In The World)” – one of several new Top 40 hits incorporated into the show – becomes a smarmy villain number for the Duke as he treats Satine to a shopping spree on the Champs-Élysées, in a futile effort to win her affection. Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” is also awkwardly shoehorned into the otherwise-dazzling mashup of Madonna’s “Material Girl” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” earning cheap laughs when Satine mimics the superstar’s now-iconic choreography.
But by and large, the use of recent pop songs actually improves upon the source material, helping flesh out characters’ motivations and deepen the central romance. As sung by world-weary revolutionary Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah), Lorde’s “Royals” becomes a wry critique of the class divide between artists and aristocrats. Katy Perry’s “Firework” is transformed into a tearful yet triumphant ballad for Satine as she reflects on her fading youth and limited prospects, but summons the inner fortitude to keep going.
Sia’s “Chandelier” is now a trippy absinthe drinking song, while Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” is a showstopping duet between Christian and Satine bemoaning their forbidden love, seamlessly blended together with Gnarls Barkley’s 2006 hit “Crazy.” And although we thought we’d soured on Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” after one too many wedding receptions, it’s a shockingly fun meet-cute between the characters on – where else? – the dance floor.
Fans eager to hear their favorite tunes from the film have nothing to fear: “Your Song” and “Come What May” still pack the biggest emotional wallops, and brassy, bawdy renditions of “Lady Marmalade” bookend the musical. And even when the show is working overtime to please – a “Mamma Mia!”-style super-medley at curtain call undercuts the stirring final scenes – there’s still enough onstage magic between the jaw-dropping sets and sumptuous costumes to help make the dollops of cheese more palatable.
C’est magnifique, indeed.