Before a certain virus changed everything, I had the enviable habit of flying to New York whenever a show really interested me, really wanted to premiere on Broadway. I flew east to see the original Broadway cast hamiltonand I spent a week in town with two girlfriends for the sole purpose of seeing Jeff Daniels in Aaron Sorkin’s Kill a mockingbird. In the summer of 2019, I knew I couldn’t wait the years it would take to Red Mill! Musical comedy, a stage adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s bombastic and romantic 2001 musical, to make its way to Chicago (a prescient decision on my part, it turns out). So I first saw this updated musical jukebox nearly three years ago, starring Aaron Tveit and Karen Olivo as Christian, an upbeat young American songwriter, and Satine, the ” sparkling diamond” from the famous Parisian cabaret, respectively.
After much delay, including two years of the pandemic plus return dates pushed back at least once after finally being set for early 2022 and a reviewable opening night pushed back two weeks due to breakthrough COVID cases in the cast i finally got to see it show again, a production i’m more than happy to share is a complete delight, a feast of sensory overload with more to see, hear and absorb than meets the eye could handle some in one sitting. Transported to the Nederlander Theater in Chicago (formerly the Oriental and easily the most ornate performance hall in Chicago), Red Mill!The production’s bold design (by Derek McLane) is only slightly adjusted from the Broadway setup. Gone are the cabaret tables right in front of the stage, but the huge red windmill and blue elephant that sit in the boxes flanking both sides of the theater more than make up for it. An electrified sign declares where you are (the Moulin Rouge, of course) on an open stage where members of the ensemble stroll through the thrilling pre-show soundtrack.
For the uninitiated, Red Mill! is the story of star-crossed lovers with everything from a greedy and lustful duke to tuberculosis, determined to separate them. Set in Paris during the Belle Epoque (roughly the late 1800s) at the eponymous and iconic Montmartre club, Christian et Satine (played here by a too-dumb but ultimately gritty Conor Ryan and Courtney Reed, graduating from Roosevelt University) are the lovers we root for even though we know it will never work. Harold Zidler (Austin Durant) runs the club and did it straight into mountains of debt; In order to straighten out his finances, Zidler enlists the wealthy Duke of Monroth (David Harris) to fund a new production that Christian and his bohemian co-creators have been writing. Toulouse-Lautrec (André Ward) and Santiago (Gabe Martinez) are the clever but principled companions of Christian’s doe-eyed innocence, determined to use their new play to show Paris to itself in all its grief, its injustice and its tragedy. After all, they are guided by four pillars of their very existence: truth, beauty, freedom and love.
Among the most memorable aspects of Luhrmann’s film, aside from its minute-long soundtrack, are its jaw-dropping editing style and breakneck speed, two stylistic choices that aren’t easy (if not outright impossible) to translate. into a live stage production. . And while the show, directed by Alex Timbers, does its best to mimic that mood with frenetic lighting (designed by Justin Townsend) and tongue-in-cheek dialogue, it never quite matches the same energy. Which ultimately isn’t a criticism, as the live stage production more than makes up for this shift in tone with dramatic and sexy choreography (by Sonya Tayeh; keep a special eye out for the second act opener!) and stunning sets. and costumes that bring this “spectacular spectacular” to life. The soundtrack is updated all the way, craming in all the post-2001 pop hits you can think of to modernize the show (although your favorites are still there too), and somehow other, it works. Reed’s powerful delivery of Katy Perry’s “Firework” turns a sappy girl power anthem into a statement track, and if you’re in the right seats, you can see saliva spitting from Ryan’s mouth as he launches a ferocious and vengeful “Rolling in the Deep” (Adele).
If the show slips, it’s in the one creative aspect I haven’t mentioned yet: the acting. Ryan and Reed have undeniable chemistry (certainly more so than Ryan and Reed’s stunt double, which I’ve seen on a previous show), but their individual approaches to their roles, his all goofy and lanky Midwest sound and his a sort of suppressed ambivalence until all of a sudden, she’s deathly ill, never seems to harmonize. Durant, Ward, Harris and Martinez are all perfectly cast and perfectly confident in their supporting roles (although maybe the Duke should be more sleazy and less sexy?); it’s elsewhere in the supporting cast that suffers. As Nini, co-performer of Satine and the show’s main dancer, Libby Lloyd is captivating…until she delivers lines. But those are quibbles for a show that leans into its spectacle, and then some, that truly offer escapism and entertainment, from the first shots of “Lady Marmalade” to Zidler’s very last call-and-response “Because you can , can, can!”
Red Mill! Musical comedy plays through May 14 at the Nederlander Theater, 24 W. Randolph St. Tickets are $59 to $149 and are available online. The duration is 2h35 with an intermission. For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
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