I remember being obsessed with Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, Moulin Rouge.
The film is by far one of my favourites, and the movie musical surprised with Luhrmann’s signature dazzling and colourful filming style, showcasing the surprising vocal talents of Ewan McGregor and Australia’s own Nicole Kidman as our star-crossed lovers, Christian and Satine. Just when we felt movie musicals were dead, Baz Luhrmann bravely brought the genre back to life with a moving love story equipped with famed pop and rock anthems onto the big screen. Now a cult classic, it was only a matter of time before the movie musical would be adapted and taken to the stage.
Cut to 2021, directed by Alex Timbers with its book by John Logan, Moulin Rouge! The Musical made its Australian debut right here in Melbourne. Despite the worldly challenges of the global pandemic, the Australian production persevered and has since brought the show to Sydney, Perth, and Brisbane. After two years of bringing the show all-around Australia, Moulin Rouge! The Musical has circled back in a victory lap to its Australian spiritual home.
If you’ve been living under a rock, the story follows a young bohemian poet named Christian who falls in love with French courtesan, Satine. The doomed romance is a rollercoaster ride through pop and rock numbers which have been given a new life.
The 2023 Australian production marks the return of Alinta Chidzey as the confidently beautiful courtesan Satine, Des Flanagan’s pining and innocent-like writer Christian, Simon Burke as the sassy and commanding MC and boss of the cabaret-burlesque Harold Zidler AO, Christopher J Scalzo’s unapologetically sexy Babydoll, and crowd favourites Ryan Gonzalez and Samantha Dodemaide as the fierce love-hate couple, Santiago and Nini. New additions to Melbourne’s lead line-up include James Bryers’ The Duke, Kahlia Davis as the gorgeous Arabia, Chaska Halliday’s sensual La Chocolat, and finally, Bert La Bonté stepping into the role as the forlorn struggling artist, Toulouse-Lautrec.
While it is evident that many of the cast have grown into their roles and have made them their own, there were definitely standouts. I loved James Bryers as The Duke. Not only does Bryers look fantastic in lilac (my favourite of his costumes) but his vocals were refreshingly a rock style that made his dastardly, dashing, demanding, devilish, and dangerous Duke persona even more convincing. As much as he is the villain of the story, The Duke is still insatiably likable, especially during the Rihanna number, cleverly gender lyric flipped ‘Only Girl (In The World)’ where Bryers effortlessly injects a little bit of sass and cheekiness into his performance. They say, “all’s fair in love and war”, and so we can’t help but secretly root for The Duke. Well, at least I did!
Ryan Gonzalez and Samantha Dodemaide are pure magic alone but are electric when they’re together as the suave Santiago and the feisty Nini. Their chemistry is off the charts but especially during the ‘Backstage Romance’ scene that they begin together. When joined by the ensemble, the captivating choreography makes for one of the best moments and performances in the entire Australian production.
But the ‘sparking diamond’ of the night would have to be Bert La Bonté as Toulouse-Lautrec. No stranger to the stage, La Bonté’s performance as Toulouse-Lautrec is the perfect combination of sorrowful and sincere. His performance made his character feel real. You can’t help but feel deeply empathetic and understanding of La Bonté’s Toulouse, quietly suffering in a believable third-wheel predicament throughout the whole show. I loved every minute that Bert La Bonté was on stage and he is truly a gift to Australian theatre.
Proudly embracing its cabaret and burlesque roots, Moulin Rouge! The Musical is nothing short of spectacular. Seeing the phenomenal scenic staging by Derek McLane and exquisite lighting by Justin Townsend is well worth the admission alone. Even before the show begins, you’d be in awe of how the Regent Theatre has transformed with a giant blue elephant, iconic red windmill, and the many, many chandeliers that have adorned the ceiling directly above the stage. The lighting is also so, so gorgeous, it alone is practically another hero of the show with its own dramatic personality.
The way the cast and staging make full use of the theatre, even the aisles, is also wonderful. During the finale of ‘Come What May’ when the cast filled the aisles, I adored hearing ensemble cast member in his professional stage debut, Peter Ho sing so clearly near the audience and near my seat. It is probably one of the most touching and beautiful scenes of the show, for a second everything felt celebratory yet personal and intimate in this rare and special moment.
Combined with the talents of its cast, mesmerising choreography by Sonya Tayeh, and the stunning colourful costumes by Catherine Zuber, Moulin Rouge! The Musical is so much more than just a musical, it is an experience.
Despite the obvious tragic tale that is well and truly not a spoiler, and the differences from the film (something I had to make peace with as a passionate fan of the movie, the stage musical is not a heartaching tear-jerker like its movie counterpart, choosing to lean into a more comedic and flashier version for the stage), Moulin Rouge! The Musical is addictively joyful, has some fantastic moments, and is a guaranteed great time out for all those who desire to be amongst the ‘creatures of the underworld’ for just one night.
While Moulin Rouge! The Musical is not exactly a story of love overcoming all obstacles, the Australian production’s two-year triumphant fight and journey during the global pandemic to remain on the stage is.
Moulin Rouge! The Musical is back in Melbourne and is currently playing at the Regent Theatre until December 31st, 2023.
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Photography by Chris Parker.