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Strong cast dazzles amidst song and dance of 'Moulin Rouge'

| Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, 7:27 a.m.
Dancers Luca Sbrizzi and Christine Schwaner play the lead characters in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'Moulin Rouge.' Photo by: Rich Sofranko
Molly Wright and Olivia Kelly dance the can-can in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'Moulin Rouge.' Photo by: Aimee DiAndrea

Review

Eclecticism is a virtue in the ballet “Moulin Rouge” by Jorden Morris, which Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre performed for the first time Thursday night in a run of five performances at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

Morris created the ballet for the 70th anniversary in 2009 of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Canada. Moulin Rouge is the iconic cabaret that opened in 1889. The story is a dramatically well-constructed love triangle set in a section of Paris where artists and seedier types co-exist, about a decade before the end of the 19th century.

His choreography evokes strong responses to the principal character and broadens ballet language to include popular styles. His can-cans feature the expected moves, but, characteristically of Morris' choreography, this can-can showdown is decided by ballet-whipping turns.

Morris was shrewd in assembling the music for his ballet, mainly choosing French music of the period or near to it but feeling free to jump ahead in time or to other countries to serve the moment in the story. Even when a choice was surprising, his choreography justified it.

“Moulin Rouge” begins with the intoxication of Edith Piaf's song “La vie en rose.” It was deliciously performed by violinist Charles Stegeman and accordionist Henry Doktorski, who also sang. They then joined oboist Robin Driscol and cellist Elisa Kohanski to provide the distinctive charm of live music for a few more minutes before recorded music took over.

Christine Schwaner was irresistible as Nathalie, the poor young woman who sees a step up in life for herself by dancing at the Moulin Rouge. Schwaner was utterly fluent in transition from pantomime to dance, and in encompassing dance styles. Her string of turns at the end of the competition drew enthusiastic applause.

Luca Sbrizzi also presented a very well-defined portrayal of his character, Matthew, the young artist who not only meets Nathalie, his love, but also artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who becomes his mentor. Sbrizzi's wide emotional range and solo skills were, if anything, topped by his partnering. His love scene with Schwaner at the end of the first act, with the significant help of a lighted Eiffel Tower in the background and a dance to “Clair de lune,” was thoroughly enchanting.

Joseph Parr was Toulouse-Lautrec as the crippled painter could only imagine himself. The duet with Sbrizzi as the two artists wielded canvasses on easels with wheels was a high point of the evening. So, too, was the scene where tailors gave Matthew a total makeover, thanks to Toulouse-Lautrec. For all the boldness of Parr's dancing, he also portrayed his character's wisdom as demanded by the plot.

Smaller roles also were well-handled, such as the competing woman dancer La Goulue, played by Elysa Hotchkiss. She also was excellent as part of the lead tango couple, with the admirable Alejandro Diaz.

Finally, Robert Moore was terrific as Zidler, the owner of Moulin Rouge. After becoming infatuated with Nathalie, he becomes a perfect big bully. Moore's athleticism and virtuosity would overpower anyone on stage. Yet, he also has his henchmen haul Matthew out of the picture. Then he pulls a gun.

Without giving away the ending, it's set to “The Magic Garden” by Maurice Ravel, who wrote it for the finale of his ballet “Mother Goose.” Morris harnesses its magic exquisitely.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production of “Moulin Rouge” will be repeated at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Benedum Center. Admission is $25.75 to $95.75. Details: 412-456-6666 or www.pbt.org.

Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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