Before the lights go down in Hollywood’s iconic Pantages theater for Moulin Rouge‘s North American tour, the ensemble cast struts around the extravagant set in a preview of what’s to come. With a windmill on one side of the stage and a massive elephant on the other, the flamboyant spectacle fits right in at the Pantages’ lavish theater.
“Some shows come into the Pantages, and they look like the show was designed specifically for the Pantages,” says Hollywood Pantages Theater president Jeff Loeb. “I love watching patrons walk into the lobby who have never been there before, slack jawed at the beauty of the theater itself. Then you go into the auditorium, and the lighting sets immediately transport you with the theater. It’s a concert with the architecture of the theater. Then the pre-show starts and it just sort of begins in this slow motion of ‘Wow, you really aren’t sitting at the corner of Hollywood and Vine anymore.’ You’re someplace very special. And that’s the world of Moulin Rouge.”
The stage show, which opened on Broadway in 2019, is the musical adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s much-beloved classic 2001 film. The story follows Christian (played in L.A. by Conor Ryan), a young composer, who falls in love with cabaret actress and Moulin Rouge star Satine (played by Courtney Reed). The musical updates the film with a more modern mashup of songs and an added live-performance flair. Like the movie, the musical score weaves together 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,” says director Alex Timbers. “[Moulin Rouge] is a show about a bunch of people trying to put on a show. Christian is an artist that arrives with so much hope and optimism from another world and is just dazzled by what he experiences. I think that metaphor of what it is to be an artist arriving in L.A., and being blown away by the kind of adventurous spirits there, is a really apt one.”
L.A. audiences in particular have been going crazy for the six-minute Act 2 opener “Backstage Romance,” a number that is often met with show-stopping standing ovations. On opening night, the applause lasted for four minutes.
“It’s always gotten a really great response, but it never stopped the show,” remembers Austin Durant, who plays Harold Zidler in the show. “Not in the same way that it’s been happening with us. But, you know, it’s not a science, it’s not happening every show. It’s kind of thrilling to just hear that sort of response from an audience.”
“The audience is in it with us, and that’s really fun,” adds Libby Lloyd, who plays a large role in the “Backstage Romance” dance number as Nini. “That energy, we can feel it. When people stay standing in the encore, like, they’re not ready to sit down, they want to be a part of the dance party, that is the end of the show and kind of release from the emotional journey that they’ve been on. They join in on the celebration of what we’re doing.”
Almost 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 post-pandemic, following Hamilton. After live shows mostly disappeared from stages in the early days of the pandemic, such performances have made a comeback, with audiences returning as well.
“I love work that acknowledges that the audience is there,” says director Alex Timbers, referencing the show’s tendency to break the fourth wall. “That we’re all in a collective storytelling experience in those moments where you get to experience a sort of sense of ecstatic joy with the actors: there’s nothing like it. That’s the kind of work that I really want to see right now, after theater has been gone for so long. We’re happy to be a part of a show that does that.”
Ahead of the show’s final weeks at the Pantages, the theater expects a greater demand for tickets than ever. Throughout its time in each city, Durant noticed that Moulin Rouge seems to grow a fan following, with “repeat offenders” returning on multiple nights.
“I’ve never been in a show where I’ve talked to people who’ve seen it like 10 times,” Durant says. “It’s got that kind of draw to it.”
“Whoever you are, no matter what kind of person you identify as, no matter your thoughts, beliefs, political stance, you’re welcome at the Moulin Rouge,” adds Lloyd. “I feel like it’s such an escape for people. It’s an escape but it’s also a heart wrenching story. So I think people really connect to that, even more so than pre-pandemic, just clinging to this sense of some of our core beliefs that we as human beings hold dear — truth, beauty, freedom, love.”
Those are the four tenets of the show — truth, beauty, freedom and love. Those themes appear to have particularly resonated with audiences, Lloyd and other principal members of the production say, after June’s high-profile Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
At the start of the show, Christian claims that he’s come to France to escape his “stifling life in America” — a sentiment that many audience members have vocally make clear they relate to during performances.
“That week, after all that was happening, the audience would roar after he said that line, which wasn’t normally something that was happening,” says Lloyd. “I think, given our country and the pandemic and the changes that are happening, I think it’s really poignant to every audience in different ways, which is something I love about theater. You can take what you need from it.”
Moulin Rouge is playing at the Pantages Theater until Sept. 4.