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It was after seeing Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” in 2001 that I decided his “Strictly Ballroom,” the 1992 film that first brought him to the attention of American viewers, had been a one-off fluke. Lovely though “Strictly Ballroom” was and is, nothing that Mr. Luhrmann has done since then has caused me to think otherwise, “Moulin Rouge!” in particular. A pop-music jukebox-musical rewrite of “La Bohème” shot in the style of an octillion-dollar music video, it’s the campiest movie I’ve ever seen—it may well be the campiest movie ever made—and the only thing that I now remember about it with any particular clarity was Jim Broadbent lip-synching “Like a Virgin” in drag. It was thus inevitable that someone would bring it to Broadway, where campy big-budget musicals usually draw a crowd, and that someone turns out to be Alex Timbers, who’s good at going big (the musical version of “Rocky” that he directed in 2014 ended with a total-immersion fight scene of the utmost spectacularity). That doesn’t mean the show itself is any good—it is, in fact, horrible—but it’s definitely big. Every cent of its $28 million budget is visible….
The fundamental problem with “Moulin Rouge!” is that the first act is wholly devoid of feeling. John Logan’s book plays like a college skit, a sneering parody of a 19th-century opera in which a penniless songwriter (Aaron Tveit) and a mustache-twirling malefactor of great wealth (Tam Mutu) compete for the favors of a consumptive courtesan-actress (Karen Olivo) who is the star of the floor show at a Paris nightclub run by a “Cabaret”-type MC (Danny Burstein) who can no longer pay the bills. Only after intermission does “Moulin Rouge!” get serious about the plight of its hero and heroine, and by then it’s too late to make the switch: You’re supposed to be crying, but you’re already used to laughing….
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