Before the lights go out at Hollywood’s iconic Pantages theater for Moulin Rouge‘s North American tour, the ensemble shines around the extravagant set in a taste of things to come. With a windmill on one side of the stage and a huge elephant on the other, the flamboyant spectacle fits right in with the opulent theater of Pantages.
“Some of the shows come in the Pantages and it seems like the show was designed just for the Pantages,” said Jeff Loeb, president of Hollywood Pantages Theater. “I love watching guests walk into the lobby who have never been there, stunned by the beauty of the theater itself. Then you enter the auditorium, and the light sets immediately take you into the theatre. It is a concert with the architecture of the theater. Then the pre-show kicks in and it kind of kicks in in this slow motion of ‘Wow, you’re really not on the corner of Hollywood and Vine anymore.’ You are somewhere very special. And that’s the world of Moulin Rouge.”
The show, which opened on Broadway in 2019, is the musical adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s beloved 2001 classic film. The story follows Christian (played in LA by Conor Ryan), a young composer, who falls in love with comedian and Moulin Rouge star. Satine (played by Courtney Reed). The musical updates the film with a more modern mashup of songs and an added flair for live performances. Like the film, the score interweaves original songs with popular music from the likes of Katy Perry, Sia, Walk the Moon, Pink and The Police.
“Los Angeles is such an artistic mecca in America,” said director Alex Timbers. “[Moulin Rouge] is a show about a bunch of people trying to put on a show. Christian is an artist who comes from another world with so much hope and optimism and is simply blinded by what he is experiencing. I think that metaphor of what it’s like to be an artist who arrives in LA and is blown away by the kind of adventurous spirits there is very apt.”
The LA audience in particular has gone nuts for the six-minute Act 2 opener “Backstage Romance,” a track often met with jaw-dropping standing ovations. On the opening night, the applause lasted four minutes.
“It was always very well received, but it never stopped the show,” recalls Austin Durant, who plays Harold Zidler on the show. ‘Not in the same way as with us. But you know, it’s not science, it doesn’t happen every show. It’s quite exciting to hear such a reaction from an audience.”
“The audience is with us, and that’s great fun,” adds Libby Lloyd, who plays a major role as Nini in the dance number “Backstage Romance”. “That energy, we feel it. If people stay in the encore, like, they’re not ready to sit down, they want to be part of the dance, that’s the end of the show and kind of a release from the emotional journey they’ve been on. They celebrate what we are doing.”
Nearly a year after Broadway’s return to live performances following the COVID-19 shutdown, Moulin Rouge is the second show to grace the Pantages stage after the pandemic, next Hamilton. After live shows largely disappeared from the stages in the early days of the pandemic, such performances have returned and audiences are returning.
“I like work that recognizes the audience is there,” director Alex Timbers says, referring to the show’s tendency to break the fourth wall. “That we are all in a collective storytelling experience in those moments when you experience a kind of ecstatic joy with the actors: nothing beats. That’s the kind of work I really want to see now, now that theater has been gone for so long. We’re thrilled to be a part of a show that does that.”
Ahead of the final weeks of the show in Pantages, the theater expects greater demand for tickets than ever before. During his time in each city, Durant noticed that: Moulin Rouge seems to be a fan that follows, with “repeat offenders” returning on multiple nights.
“I’ve never been on a show where I’ve talked to people who’ve seen it ten times,” says Durant. “It has such an appeal.”
“Whoever you are, whatever kind of person you identify with, whatever your thoughts, beliefs or political views, you are welcome at the Moulin Rouge,” Lloyd added. “I feel like it’s such an escape for people. It’s an escape, but it’s also a heartbreaking story. So I think people really connect with that, even more than pre-pandemic, just stick with this sense of some of our core beliefs that we hold dear as humans – truth, beauty, freedom, love.
Those are the four principles of the show: truth, beauty, freedom and love. Those themes seem to be particularly resonating with audiences, Lloyd and other key members of the production say, following the high-profile Supreme Court decision in June. Roe v. Wade.
At the start of the show, Christian claims he came to France to escape his “suffocating life in America” — a feeling many audience members have vocally made clear during performances.
“That week, after everything that happened, the audience roared after he said that sentence, which normally didn’t happen,” Lloyd says. “I think, given our country and the pandemic and the changes that are happening, I think it’s very moving for every audience in different ways, which is something I love about theatre. You can get what you need out of it.”
Moulin Rouge plays at the Pantages Theater until September 4.