Before the lights went down at Hollywood’s iconic Pantages Theater for red Millof the North American tour, the ensemble struts around the extravagant set as a preview of what’s to come. With a windmill on one side of the stage and a massive elephant on the other, the flamboyant spectacle fits perfectly into the sumptuous Pantages theatre.
“Some shows come to the Pantages, and it looks like the show was made specifically for the Pantages,” said Hollywood Pantages Theater president Jeff Loeb. “I love watching patrons walk into the lobby who have never been there before, gobsmacked at the beauty of the theater itself. Then you walk into the auditorium, and the light shows immediately transport you with the theater. It’s a concert with the architecture of the theater. Then the pre-show starts and it kind of starts in this slow motion of, ‘Wow, you really aren’t sitting on the corner of Hollywood and Vine anymore. ‘ You are in a very special place. And this is the world of red Mill.”
The show, which opened on Broadway in 2019, is the musical adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s much-loved 2001 classic film. The story follows Christian (played in Los Angeles by Conor Ryan), a young composer, who falls in love with cabaret actress and Moulin Rouge star Satine (played by Courtney Reed). The musical updates the film with a more modern mix of songs and an added live performance twist. Like the film, the musical score weaves original songs with popular music from Katy Perry, Sia, Walk the Moon, Pink and The Police.
“Los Angeles is an artistic mecca in America,” says director Alex Timbers. “[Moulin Rouge] is a show about a group of people trying to put on a show. Christian is an artist who arrives with so much hope and optimism from another world and is just dazzled by what he is going through. I think this metaphor of what it’s like to be an artist coming to LA, and to be blown away by the kind of adventurous spirits there, is really fitting.
Audiences in Los Angeles in particular went wild for the six-minute Act 2 opener “Backstage Romance,” a number that often elicits breathtaking standing ovations. On opening night, the applause lasted four minutes.
“It always got a really good response, but it never stopped the show,” recalls Austin Durant, who plays Harold Zidler on the show. “Not in the same way as it is with us. But, you know, it’s not a science, it doesn’t happen on every show. It’s pretty exciting to hear that kind of response from an audience.
“The audience is with us, and it’s really fun,” adds Libby Lloyd, who plays a big part in the “Backstage Romance” dance number as Nini. “This energy, we can feel it. When people stay standing in the encore, like, they’re not ready to sit down, they want to be part of the dance party, that’s the end of the show and kind of a release from the emotional journey that they’ve been on on. They join in the celebration of what we do.
Nearly a year after Broadway returned to shows following the COVID-19 shutdown, red Mill is the second show to grace the Pantages stage post-pandemic, after hamilton. After live shows mostly disappeared from stages at the start of the pandemic, such performances have made a comeback, with the return of audiences as well.
“I love work that recognizes the audience is there,” says director Alex Timbers, referring to the show’s tendency to break down the fourth wall. “That we’re all in a collective storytelling experience in those moments where you feel a kind of ecstatic joy with the actors: there’s nothing like it. This is the kind of work I really want to see right now, after theater has been gone for so long. We’re happy to be part of a show that does that.
Heading into the final weeks of the show at the Pantages, the theater expects greater demand for tickets than ever. Throughout his stay in each city, Durant noticed that red Mill seems to be becoming a fan following, with “repeat offenders” returning multiple nights.
“I’ve never been on a show where I’ve talked to people who’ve seen it 10 times,” Durant says. “There is this kind of draw.”
“Whoever you are, whatever type of person you identify with, whatever your thoughts, your beliefs, your political stance, you are welcome at the Moulin Rouge,” Lloyd adds. “I feel like it’s such an escape for people. It’s an escape but it’s also a heartbreaking story. So I think people are really connecting to that, even more than before the pandemic, just hanging on to that sense of some of our core beliefs that we hold dear as human beings – truth, beauty , freedom, love.
These are the four principles of the series: truth, beauty, freedom and love. These themes seem to have particularly resonated with audiences, according to Lloyd and other senior production members, after the high-profile June Supreme Court ruling quashing Roe vs. Wade.
At the start of the show, Christian claims he came to France to escape his “suffocating life in America” - a sentiment that many audience members made clear out loud during performances.
“That week, after everything that was happening, the audience was screaming after he said that line, which normally wasn’t something that happened,” Lloyd explains. “I think, given our country and the pandemic and the changes that are happening, I think it’s really poignant for every audience in different ways, which is something I love about acting. You can get what you need out of it.
red Mill plays at the Pantages Theater until September 4.