Review: “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” offers a dazzling, high-energy run through the pop songbook

(Matthew Murphy/Courtesy Walton Arts Center)

Within moments of the opening of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” which is currently on a tour stop at the Walton Arts Center, you get a sense of the kind of show that you’ll see for the next 160 minutes.

It is big, bold, sexy and surprising. Dancers fly in from all corners of the stage, and literal confetti flies from the cane of the emcee, Harold Zidler (played in Fayetteville by Austin Durant).

But let’s first go back to “before” the show begins. Even before the curtain opens, characters strut around on the stage, smoking cigars and cigarettes and caressing each other. The stage is decadent and quite red. There is no introduction between this transition period and the start of the show. It just kind of blasts off.

Before this, perhaps we should travel back to the origins of the musical. It is most closely related to the 2001 film by Baz Luhrmann that starred Ewan McGregor as a hopelessly-in-love poet named Christian and Nicole Kidman as Satine, the featured attraction of the Moulin Rouge nightclub. Further back, the film owes itself to Greek mythology, pop music and the famed, 130-year-old nightclub in Paris called the Moulin Rouge.

The Broadway version debuted in Boston in 2018 before transferring to New York City in 2019. It won 10 Tony Awards after its debut, including those for Best Musical, Best Choreography and Best Direction.

“Moulin Rouge! The Musical” is a jukebox musical on steroids, zipping around from Elton John to Fun. to David Bowie to Madonna to Destiny’s Child and more. It’s quite chaotic; one such montage moves from Lady Gaga to Soft Cell to The White Stripes to Britney Spears to The Eurythmics in the span of about three minutes. The musical features many of the same songs as the film, but also received an update to include songs from the 22 years since the film debuted.

“Moulin Rouge! The Musical”

When: Through Feb. 19, 2023
Where: Walton Arts Center, Fayetteville
Cost: Tickets start at $65 plus fees
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or

The story structure relies on these songs to drive us forward. Christian (played when I saw the show Friday night by Jack Cahill-Lemme) is a songwriter who has recently come to Paris to find … something. What he discovers is the Bohemian way, the same one practiced by his newfound friends Toulouse-Lautrec (Nick Rashad Burroughs) and Santiago (Gabe Martinez).

The trio plots to have their new theatrical work performed inside of the Moulin Rouge, but they need to convince the star, Satine, to go along with the plan. Christian sings “his” new song to Satine to convince her of his skills. The song is called “Your Song,” which we know as an Elton John classic. Satine (Courtney Reed) falls for the song, and she might be falling for Christian, too.

Even with a great set of songs, the theater needs money to make sure an audience gets to hear them. Enter the Duke of Monroth (Andrew Brewer). He has the resources to keep the theater running, but it comes with a price – he wants Satine. She’s forced to court him while her feelings for Christian deepen. Meanwhile, Satine has been feeling ill – and rumors that the Duke killed the last lover that broke his heart only add tension to these proceedings.

The Duke uses his influence to change the direction of the play to suit his liking. He wanted more dancing, more action and more love. While watching “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” play out, we immediately know this is the wrong direction for the show within the show. But I kind of wanted more of that, too, and less of the supposed grandeur of “Come What May,” the song that is supposed to signify the love between Christian and Satine. I don’t know if any of the more intimate moments brought the chemistry expected of them.

But we have to sneak some story elements into a production somehow, right? In order, it’s something like this: Come to “Moulin Rouge” for the wild dance numbers, stick around for the beautiful scenic work and the onstage magic of the absinthe scene and don’t mind the love story that bubbles underneath. I would also recommend keeping your eyes open at all times. You don’t want to miss the sword-swallowing act. It’s real, as best as I could tell from my vantage point. It’s quite something indeed that sword swallowing is the fifteenth-most-dazzling thing of a performance, but here we are.

(Matthew Murphy/Courtesy Walton Arts Center)

I mentioned that the night I watched the show an understudy helmed the role of Christian. It’s hard to say what we might have missed from actor billed for the role, Conor Ryan. But Cahill-Lemme didn’t miss a step or a note during the performance I watched. All of the acting was strong, in fact. It’s a show new enough to the touring circuit that everyone is on their best behavior and energy levels.

When the local arts community was sold on the need for an expansion of the Walton Arts Center, we were promised that Broadway’s best and brightest were more likely to come to the area. “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” is certainly one of the brightest, boldest musicals I’ve ever watched live. I might be more partial to other titles, but this is certainly one of the biggest shows to arrive in Fayetteville in recent memory – so big that it required rooms beyond the standard dressing areas to accommodate all the wigs and costumes.

Perhaps only “Hamilton” landed in Northwest Arkansas amidst bigger buzz or with a higher average ticket price. Those are different shows in many significant ways. But “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” is one of the heavy hitters of recent Broadway past – and the production in town now is proof of why so many people went gaga for the show.