Stepping into the Piccadilly Theatre, you walk into a world of red-tinged opulence as it transforms itself into the fin de siècle nightclub the Moulin Rouge. The warmth of the light, the glow of the lacy heart-shaped golden arches, the glitter of a lighted windmill turning in one of the boxes, and the fun of the huge blue elephant gazing down from another are simply joyful.
From the second you enter you know what to expect: a musical with a heart of gold that seeks to entertain and overwhelm in equal measure. It is so over the top, it's irresistible.
It's taken Moulin Rouge!, a show with a book by John Logan, based on Baz Luhrmann's film, more than two years to get from Broadway to the West End, and even once it arrived, its opening was much delayed by Covid. But now it is here, its sheer razzle-dazzle power makes it a tonic in the dark days of winter.
The design team – Derek McLane, Catherine Zuber, Justin Townsend and Peter Hylenski – deserve a round of applause every night. Their combined vision is a triumph, switching the action with colourful brio from the nightclub itself (complete with bright-skirted can-can dancers and red velvet banquettes) to a Paris that springs to vivid life in front of our eyes, with the Eiffel Tower itself making a glistening appearance both through windows and as a prop in one of the climactic dance numbers.
Everything is designed to thwack the viewer into beguiled submission, and that's before you take into account its soundtrack – a glorious mashup of just about every song you've ever wanted to dance to or sing along with. As it tells the story of Satine, famous star of the famous Moulin Rouge, and her entanglements with the young dreamer Christian and the manipulative Duke who wants to buy her body and soul, there's a delirious delight in a jukebox that extends from "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend", to "Toxic", "Burning Down the House", and "Single Ladies". Not to mention "Your Song", "Heroes" and "The Sound of Music".
The direction of Alex Timbers and the choreography of Sonya Tayeh moves through this music with energetic panache; the "Bad Romance" opening of the second act – when the stage is stripped to a behind the scenes setting that allows the excellent ensemble some space to strut their stuff – is one of the most exciting, propulsive dance sequences I've seen for some time. Other scenes throw in fireworks and glitter showers, but they really don't need them. The sheer inventiveness is enough.
In the midst of all this excess, there's a danger that the story, slim as it is, could entirely lose its focus. That it doesn't is down to excellent performances. Liisi LaFontaine as a Satine has a voice of supple, easy expressiveness and a presence that grounds a clichéd character and makes her real. She's matched by Jamie Bogyo, making his professional stage debut, and lending Christian a tenderness and directness as well as some terrific singing.
They're brilliantly surrounded by a cast that includes Clive Carter's commanding impresario Zidler (more sympathetic and less sinister than in the movie, with perfect comic timing and warmth) and Jason Pennycooke's terrific Toulouse-Lautrec, always shouting about revolution but consumed by his own love for Satine. The moment when a real Toulouse-Lautrec painting becomes part of the setting is another highlight.
There's a slight and unavoidable falling off in the second half, as the story takes its tragic turn, but the brio of the production never falters. It's an absolute blast.