Ah, the course of true love never did run smooth. With that Shakespearean thought in mind, choreographer Jorden Morris latched onto Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's latest production, "Moulin Rouge -- The Ballet," concocting a sprawling story filled with fact and fiction to bring the famed Parisian cabaret to life.
With this local premiere, the Benedum Center audiences could easily come away with a modern-day sensibility of the juicy excitement that the Moulin Rouge brought to Paris when it first opened in 1889. Mr. Morris did his research well, weaving in the original founder, Charles Zidler, as the villain, plus a virtuosic Toulouse-Lautrec, and actual high-kicking Moulin Rouge stars La Goulue and Mome Fromage.
He then offered delicious details, filling Andrew Beck's charming street in Montmarte with characters such as a baker, a street sweeper and a pickpocket. Mr. Beck's versatile set design, inspired by the Eiffel tower, also captured a Parisian cafe with tango dancers, the City of Lights on a bridge along the Seine and the Moulin Rouge interior, with, of course, the cancan dancers.
At its heart was a love triangle of operatic proportions that underscored the budding romance of Nathalie, a beautiful laundress who quickly rose to star at the Moulin Rouge, and Matthew, a young artist new to the city. But Zidler wanted to claim Nathalie as his own.
There was a lot of information to collect and absorb in this 2-hour 20-minute production, which would benefit by some judicious trimming. And therein lies the rub, for this Bohemian landscape, where both rich and poor rubbed shoulders for the first time in a teeming theatrical cauldron, just seemed to suggest rather than boil away.
As rich as the material was, Mr. Morris, who choreographs in a traditional balletic fashion, seemed to sanitize it all, even the Cancan, where there were polite kicklines and prim flips of the skirt, except for Elysa Hotchkiss, whose La Goulue had the prerequisite ribald star quality. The fight scenes between Zidler and Matthew, which could have escalated the tension, consisted mostly of posing and glaring rather than grappling. And Nathalie (a captivating Christine Schwaner) was forced to plead for her lover with the same gestures over and over.
The scenes for Toulouse-Lautrec, while well-danced by Joseph Parr, seemed artificial given the artist's well-known short stature. His scenes brought a certain whimsy, though, in channeling his artistic muses, something he transferred to the eager Matthew (a winning Luca Sbrizzi). But the second act veered off course when a depressed Matthew, who thought he lost Nathalie to Zidler (a robust Robert Moore), was comforted by green fairies, probably hallucinations from the French drink absinthe, but again, too aloof and stilted in the staging.
Mr. Morris was more successful with the score, which was actually a crazy quilt of French songs (admirably rendered by a live quartet that included members of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Orchestra) and period pieces from Offenbach's piquant "Orpheus in the Underworld," perhaps the most well-known of the cancan tunes, to Astor Piazzolla's sensual tangos.
Still they each established a pungent atmosphere that was not always matched by the choreography, where pique turns punctuated the evening to little effect. In fact, most of the dance phrases could be found in the classroom rather than on Montmarte.
The Moulin Rouge symbolized an era of sensuality and reckless abandon, something that this "Moulin Rouge," while colorful in its own right, still needs to embrace.