Tag Archives: Alex Timbers

“Moulin Rouge!” at the Piccadilly Theatre

This theatrical version of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie musical arrived in London with considerable hype (and ten Tony Awards) at the start of this year and is clearly set to be a profitable West End fixture. 

The escapist love story between cabaret courtesan Satine and singer-songwriter Christian has appeal. The book by John Logan may be thin, but it is well crafted – the device of a show-within-a-show is as safe as they come but it is used superbly. And you can literally see what’s drawing in the crowds – the production is as sumptuous as it is entertaining. With wonderful costumes by Catherine Zuber and stunning lighting design from Justin Townsend, Moulin Rouge! looks great. And it sounds, well, it sounds OK.

Luhrmann’s mashed-up soundtrack, taking snatches of songs from very different artists, was innovative and influential at the time. The music supervisor and orchestrator for the show (who has also provided additional lyrics) is Justin Levine and his work is accomplished. But, somehow, the music doesn’t excite as it should. Maybe it just lacks the element of surprise? The new songs utilised are a touch predictable. Or maybe, director Alex Timbers mistakes the wit for humour too often. The technique isn’t just a joke – it’s supposed to reflect Christian’s creativity and is used in serious scenes. Yet too often it becomes a game for the audience… remember the TV show Name That Tune? Frankly, the whole thing is done a little bit better in a much lower key show, &Juliet. Even worse, and more puzzling, the sound itself is underwhelming – and I seldom say that a show isn’t loud enough.

These disappointments are not the fault of the performers (although some of the singing could be tighter). But nearly all the characters have too little to do. The villain and Christian’s friends are woefully one-dimensional: Simon Bailey and Elia Lo Tauro end up wooden as a result. Jason Pennycooke’s Toulouse-Lautrec is better but hampered by a cod French accent. Clive Carter, as the owner of the cabaret, has clearly been directed to give his best impersonation of Jim Broadbent in the film. Carter can whip up a crowd, so it’s shame he isn’t given more freedom. And the character is a car crash – tarts with hearts is one thing but sympathy for the pimp?

The result of poor characters means the show rests on the leads, which isn’t unusual or necessarily a problem but often feels weak or lazy. Thankfully, these leads are good. Liisi LaFontaine uses her powerful voice to the max and really pleases the crowd. Honestly, the consumptive Satine is a bit of a bore, but LaFontaine makes her charisma believable. Jamie Bogyo has the better role as Christian and he can belt out a tune, too. There are moments of pathos as Bogyo sings that show that the musical mash-up can bring about drama as well as comedy. These moments shine, but leave the impression that the source material has been short changed. For once, the film is better than the stage. That’s not something to celebrate.


“Here Lies Love” at the National Theatre

The National Theatre’s gone all trendy. Passing the new, stylish Understudy Bar, to the swanky refurbishment of the Dorfman (formerly Cottesloe) auditorium, you can see that plenty of money has been splashed around. And the first show in the renamed space is just as startling: a musical ‘experience’ by David ‘Talking Heads’ Byrnes and Fatboy Slim (aka Norman Cook).

To be fair, the National does its best to embrace all kinds of work and this production comes from New York’s Public Theatre. Here Lies Love is so achingly ‘out there’ it could annoy, but there’s a stubbornness to do something different that wins admiration. Something this fresh, almost innocent, has its appeal.

Byrnes and Cook aren’t known for musical theatre, rather their iconoclastic approaches to pop music. Here Lies Love is about Imelda Marcos – yet there’s no mention of her infamous shoe collection. It’s a story of revolution, like other notable musicals, but the Philippines People Power Revolution was a peaceful one; a truly inspiring story, but not automatically the greatest drama.

The dance music works surprisingly well with dramatic political events that call on the crowd. But the beat fails to deliver when a song aims for emotional sincerity, creating bathos instead. A DJ, played by Martin Sarreal, presides over events, but it’s notable that his finest moment is with an acoustic guitar rather than at a turntable.

The show is a collection of songs rather than a true musical – which is interesting, but creates some problems. Exposition comes from signs and voice-overs rather than the songs. Lyrics aren’t strong but occasions when real life transcripts are utilised are gripping. Imelda’s rags to riches story isn’t exactly wasted but it isn’t fully explored either. What depth the characters have comes from the performances.

Jpeg 4. Christopher Chung (ensemble) and Mark Bautista (Fedinand Marcos)_Here Lies Love_credit Tristram Kenton
Mark Bautista as Fedinand Marcos

And the performances are fantastic. Seldom have I seen such an energetic cast on stage, nor, incidentally, such a good-looking one.  is stunning in the lead role, making Imelda an unexpected heroine and a suitably magnetic figure. Imelda’s love interests, first the aspiring, later rival, politician Ninoy Aquino (Dean John-Wilson) and then her husband Ferdinand (Mark Bautista), both have great stage presence. All can sing and dance powerfully well – and that’s no mean feat when you are running a country at the same time.

The staging is remarkable; a huge technical treat, forcefully directed by Alex Timbers, with special ushers to marshal the crowd around a rotating stage. All this immersion is so fashionable it can seem tokenistic, but if it’s your thing you will dance and sing along. There’s a lesson in line dancing – and don’t forget the Philippines invented karaoke. Here Lies Love almost lives up to its tag line of being ‘revolutionary’. Despite connections to other musicals and theatre trends, it’s not quite like anything else – which is a pretty strong recommendation.

Until 8 January 2015


Photos by Tristram Kenton