Flowers or tomatoes? Theatergoers share mixed reviews of ‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’ and ‘Dear Octopus’ revivals

Inside Piccadilly Theatre at 'Moulin Rouge! The Musical'
Theatergoers await the start of 'Moulin Rouge! The Musical' inside Piccadilly Theatre in London. (Samantha Thomas/MEDILL)

By Medill Explores: Arts and Culture in London students
Medill Reports

Two reimagined classic shows — one on the West End and another at the Royal National Theatre — earn stars from some Medill master’s students who recently traveled to London. But even the curtain calls come with caveats.

“Moulin Rouge! The Musical”

Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” sound like they belong on a playlist for a mediocre karaoke bar — not the score for a West End show. With sequined corsets, can-cans and overplayed, all-too-familiar lyrics, Piccadilly Theatre’s production of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” follows the love story of Satine (effortlessly played by Tanisha Spring) and Christian (expertly played by Dom Simpson), an unlikely pair who fight through secrecy, status and scandal to be together in 1899 Paris. While the 2001 film starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor also covers recognizable songs, including Madonna’s “Like A Virgin,” a musical aficionado might be startled to hear Katy Perry’s “Firework” instead of an original ballad. Some audience members appreciated the cheesy choruses more than others — with some giggles and scoffs when Sia’s “Chandelier” began, or sniffles and an “awwww!” during Elton John’s “Your Song.” Still, Spring and Simpson dazzle with their powerful vibratos and undeniable chemistry. Overall, admirers of beloved pop track lists will applaud remixes of Lorde and Rihanna, but anyone else would be better off getting a ticket to a show with more inventive songwriting — instead of 2010’s top-50 radio hits. – Megan Forrester


Visually, Piccadilly Theatre’s production exquisitely honors the historic Parisian theater and Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film. Before the curtains open, a light-up elephant and moving windmill creep into the box seats, and actors in lacy black corsets and feathers slink hypnotically across stage. But the show misses the note from its jarring, explosive opening number, “Welcome to the Moulin Rouge!” Its modern jukebox style feels like a schtick that goes on too long for an audience forced to hurtle past major plot points (two of the characters are childhood friends?) to make room for song, song, song! The near constant singing leaves little time for storyline or emotion, so after nearly three hours, viewers have no stake in the characters and find the love match dubious as they are told, not shown, about the main characters’ time together. A tragic ending and a solemn announcement of the tale’s slapdash theme (“Truth. Beauty. Freedom. Love.”) attempts to cram in some gravity just before the final curtain call. But the whiplash of the transition from the final lament to the return of the opening number (now with can-cans!) sends a different message. Life is tragic. Let’s party! – Catherine Adams


Stepping into a glowing-red room strung with blazing lights and bass-bumping music perfectly introduces how “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” transformed Piccadilly Theatre into a concert-dance showcase. Colorful, bright costuming kept all eyes trans, most notably through Tanisha Spring’s blinding diamond getups in her portrayal of Satine, a glamorous, captivating star of the Moulin Rouge nightclub. Strong vocal and dance performances drove the audience through the classic romance story and into a realm where the avant-garde mingle with the elite. Leading performers included Spring and Dom Simpson in his portrayal of Christian, a young composer who fights to win Satine’s love in the archetypal storyline of love versus money. The nightclub’s host, Harold Zidler, played by Matt Rixon, invites theatergoers to immerse themselves in the spectacle — and they do, as evidenced by belly laughter and applause. Yet, story plot holes left lasting questions. One major conflict, the nightclub’s struggling financial status, remains unresolved. And the mostly cheesy mashup of early-2000s top-hits pop singles (like the eye-rolling rendition of Katy Perry’s “Firework” during an emotional scene of Satine confronting her struggles as a sexualized woman in entertainment) were less of a contemporary twist on classic musicals, and more so outdated and unintentionally comical. Older generations may find the show creative and emotional, since the soundtrack won’t evoke memories of their awkward teenage years. But anyone younger might laugh and roll their eyes too. — Carla McCanna


At “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” whimsical, colorful lighting and effects accentuated elegant, flashy garments. Loud applause greeted well-choreographed numbers, but something felt off about the show. Giggles and gasps wafted around the theater as lead actress Tanisha Spring, playing cabaret performer Satine, began singing “Firework,” the 2010 dance-pop hit by Katy Perry at a pivotal moment. The performers also belted out odd renditions of “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele and “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga. Older attendees seemed unfazed, perhaps because the songs fit the plot just as strangely as the remakes of “Rhythm of the Night” by DeBarge and “Roxanne” by The Police fit the 2001 film version of “Moulin Rouge.” Twentysomethings who listened to 2010s top hits on their iPod Touches ad nauseam may find themselves haunted by the overplayed beats they will forever associate with mustache tattoos and feather extensions. Gen Z, cover your ears. – Abigail Ali


The 10-time Tony winner “Moulin Rouge!,” adapted from the 2001 film, flaunts all the elements of a box-office sensation — a tragic love story, dynamic cabaret choreography and a glittering set that transports viewers to Champ de Mars. In the fiery opening scene, a remake of the 1974 Labelle hit “Lady Marmalade” sexualizes the theater, and the leggy movements of the club girls in their black lace leotards emit a pulsing energy. But the electricity quickly loses power as the jukebox soundtrack progresses. Love, lust and … is that Katy Perry?  Before the Evil Duke can kill Satine and Christian’s romance, the true butcher reveals itself: Walk the Moon’s 2014 radio anthem “Shut Up and Dance.” Not maddening enough on its own, it is spliced with Pink’s “Raise Your Glass.” Iconic? Yes. Timeless? Questionable. The outdated music consistently pulls viewers out of the story, and only quality classics like Elton John’s “Your Song” or the film’s original duet “Come What May,” composed by David Baerwald and Kevin Gilbert, allow them to re-engage. Even the best of the score doesn’t revive the plot, lost to antiquated tunes, but if you’re craving karaoke night and are well-versed in 2010s pop music, this show is for you. – Julia Gordon


Moulin Rouge! The Musical at Picadilly Theater in London
“Moulin Rouge! The Musical” at Piccadilly Theater in London. (Samantha Thomas/MEDILL)

The jukebox musical “Moulin Rouge!” dazzles for its genius representation of emotion through costuming and color, much more than for its cookie-cutter dialogue and acting. Tony-winning head designer Catherine Zuber deems movement the theme. Sequins and sparkles shine from tightly bound corsets, dancers’ billowy green- and orange-tiered skirts burst out wide and high during kicklines, and Satine, skillfully played by Tanisha Spring, glides across the stage to and from her lovers in bright robes adorned with poofy feathers and long, trailing slits. The show symbolizes seduction with pink and love with blue, but it’s rouge that dominates the stage. It marks Satine like a scarlet letter. Who is she? A performer, a prostitute, a duchess, a lover? In a cardinal moment, the Champs-Élysées bourgeoisie lifts Satine, her arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross, and transforms the hue of her red gown into one matching their aristocratic soft purples — a physical manifestation of a tempting new status. Viewers could most likely guess the entire plot of “Moulin Rouge!” based on costume colors. Is this good or bad? There’s only one way to find out. – Sylvie Kirsch


The West End’s captivating adaptation of director, producer and co-writer Baz Luhrmann’s sensational romantic film “Moulin Rouge!” astonished audiences with its portrayal of love, loyalty and truth. The glamorous show follows Christian, an American writer who falls for Satine, a cabaret actress and the star of the club Moulin Rouge. Amid the backdrop of 1899 Paris, this modern take uses mashups of songs from the 1940s to the 2010s, such as Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” Madonna’s “Material Girl,” Katy Perry’s “Firework,” Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” and Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep.” These well-known choices often felt jarring and out of place, given the historical context, and distracted from the strong points of the performance, like the characters’ acting, singing and dancing. Yet, the glitz and glamour of the set design and the extravagant costumes worn by the talented cast members still captivated the audience. While theatergoers often moaned, groaned and laughed as they repeatedly guessed which song would play next, classic pop enthusiasts should get a kick out of this contemporary take on a beloved musical. – Tara Mobasher


“Moulin Rouge!” at Piccadilly Theatre sparkles from a cast full of creative powerhouses. Tanisha Spring, as cabaret performer Satine, and Dom Simpson, as singer-songwriter Christian, dazzle on the extravagant stage, carrying the show through outdated (and sometimes cringey) jukebox numbers like Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” mashed up, “Glee style, with Pink’s “Raise Your Glass.” Spring’s powerful vocals even manage to nearly sell Katy Perry’s overplayed “Firework” as a solemn emotional power ballad. Aside from the knockout original song, “Come What May,” the decades-old radio hits feel like a try-hard, failed attempt at keeping current. But it’s the artists behind the cast, like costume designer Catherine Zuber, who make this production sing. Zuber cleverly uses gendered color stories, dressing Spring in hyperfeminine corsets and pink and red lingerie, and Simpson in masculine sapphires and muted chocolate browns. As the scandalous love-triangle unfolds, Zuber ditches the gendered pinks and blues for warm, nostalgic-feeling yellows. By curtain call, Satine and Christian exchange color stories, symbolizing their unity and devotion for one another. Despite the string of songs that make you feel like you’re walking through a Macy’s, the skillful performance and breathtaking set design make the evening at the West End well worth it. – Samantha Thomas


Traditional theater merges with iconic songs in the must-see avant-garde spectacle that is “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.” Based on the 2001 film, itself inspired by the famous Parisian cabaret, this electric jukebox musical is Shakespearean tragedy delivered à la mode. There’s love and triumph, yet also lechery and mortality – all to the tune of Billboard hits from stars such as Queen, Elton John, U2, Pat Benatar and Katy Perry. The savvy, meticulous wordsmithing from playwright John Logan (a Northwestern graduate) is paired with clever musical arrangements by Justin Levine. Throughout the plot, dialogue abruptly switches to lyrics, at which point actors become singers, play becomes concert, treating an increasingly expectant audience with harmonious interludes. In this way, playgoers enjoy two art forms at their highest quality for the price of one ticket. Pay that price. See this show. Its sights, sounds and compelling story make this tour de force a worthy indulgence. — Michael Lindemann



Dear Octopus at National Theatre
(Image by Kelvin Murray)

“Dear Octopus”

In 1938, English playwright and novelist Dodie Smith depicted the intertwined laughter and tears within a British family in “Dear Octopus.” A thought-provoking revival at the National Theatre uses the timeless narrative to capture the essence of the Randolph family through the lens of a golden wedding anniversary between Dora (Lindsay Duncan) and Charles (Malcolm Sinclair). The reunion of the children, grandchildren and siblings unfolds with a daughter ending a longtime affair in Paris, an orphan missing her parents and a maid revealing her secret love. The poignant play creatively weaves humorous conversations into the plot, revealing Dora’s tender heart beneath her sharp wit: She always sounds aggressive, assigning everyone jobs, but she glues everyone together. Though the family seems dysfunctional, it remains bonded through soft tentacles — like a “dear octopus.” At the end, even when the outbreak of World War II is announced on the radio, the audience still believes the resilient Randolphs can endure the darkness ahead. The show gives an alternative for people who are tired of the bustling West End and want to reflect on their own family’s narratives. – Tianshu Hu


The National Theatre’s latest production of “Dear Octopus,” based on the 1938 two-act play by novelist Dodie Smith, showcases great performances from the cast, despite the show’s glacial pacing (the runtime: 165 minutes). The plot follows members of the large Randolph family, who ponder time, death and aging during the golden wedding anniversary of Dora (Lindsay Duncan) and Charles (Malcolm Sinclair).

Dora, Nicholas, Fenny and Malcom in 'Dear Octopus' at the National Theatre
Lindsay Duncan (Dora), Billy Howle (Nicholas), Bessie Carter (Fenny) and Malcolm Sinclair (Charles) in ‘Dear Octopus’ (Images by Marc Brenner)

While Fenny (Bessie Carter) and Nicholas (Tom Glenister) are the protagonists, the seniors steal the show — especially when they deliver lines that poke fun at the government. Sinclair and Duncan, who demonstrate good chemistry, remain offstage for most of act two. This creative decision makes their eventual return more dramatic. Ultimately, the play lives up to the standard set by the National Theatre’s other high-quality productions. The performances by Duncan and Sinclair uplift a story you can’t miss. – Valenti Govantes


Just before the start of World War II, the dysfunctional but caring Randolph family reunites to celebrate the matriarch and patriarch’s golden wedding anniversary. The National Theatre’s revival of British playwright Dodie Smith’s “Dear Octopus,” originally written and performed in 1938, tackles themes of shame, grief, love and connection. Burdened by the death of loved ones and World War I, the Randolphs struggle to empathize with one another. The revolving set (decorated as a 1930s country house), with empty portrait frames on dreary walls of subdued blues and greens, symbolize this gloom. But a fire always illuminates the family. Just as they continue to tend to the flames, they never give up on one another.

The cast of 'Dear Octopus' during the closing scene
(Images by Marc Brenner)

Glimmers of love are seen in a quick glance, a longing touch or a song between grandmother and granddaughter. The audience never actually sees the wedding of Grandma and Grandpa, but a sliver of golden light reveals the family rejoicing as the stage rotates to the next scene. During scenes when the dialogue drags, the clever use of lighting and set design succinctly captures the show’s heart. The play’s slice-of-life plot starts as a slow burn, but it sends the message that family — no matter how disjointed and chaotic — can be a light in the darkness. – Channa Steinmetz


These reviews are written by graduate students at Medill. Follow @MedillChicago on X and @medillreports on Instagram to see more student work.