United Kingdom

BAZ BAMIGBOYE: Buckle up for the return of Moulin Rouge's can-can do attitude! 

Diamonds are Liisi LaFontaine's best friend in more ways than one.

The Los Angeles native used the number made famous by Marilyn Monroe as her audition song — and it helped her win her latest West End role.

On Monday, she begins rehearsals for the London production of Broadway smash success Moulin Rouge!, which starts previews at the Piccadilly Theatre on November 12. 

The eye-popping show, with a range of pop songs including Lady Marmalade, Nature Boy and Your Song, is set in Paris in 1899.

LaFontaine plays Satine, a can-can dancer and courtesan (the role created by Nicole Kidman in Baz Luhrmann's classic 2001 film) who may look voluptuous but is suffering from consumption.

Smouldering in style: The cast of Moulin Rouge! Clockwise from left: Timmika Ramsay, Clive Carter, Liisi LaFontaine, Jamie Bogyo, Elia Lo Tauro, Sophie Carmen Jones, Simon Bailey, Jason Pennycooke, Jonathan Bishop and Zoe Birkett

'She's had a rough life and now, as she's reaching the peak and the pinnacle of success, she's battling this disease,' LaFontaine told me as we sipped mineral water (later swapped for a Starbucks latte) in the Mandrake Hotel in Fitzrovia, a boutique spot as deliberately decadent as the Moulin Rouge itself.

'Life is fragile when you're young — you think you have all the time in the world,' she said. 

'The show has all this glitz and extravagance, but it's underpinned by how important it is to love while you're here.'

It's a coming home, of sorts, for Ms LaFontaine. She played Deena Jones, the Diana Ross figure in Dreamgirls, at the Savoy Theatre in 2016. 

At just about the same time Jamie Bogyo — who plays Christian, her impoverished American lover in Moulin Rouge! — arrived in London to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Ewan McGregor played that role in Luhrmann's picture.

LaFontaine plays Satine, a can-can dancer and courtesan (the role created by Nicole Kidman in Baz Luhrmann's classic 2001 film) who may look voluptuous but is suffering from consumption. Jamie Bogyo plays Christian, her impoverished American lover

I have a vague recollection of sampling some champagne, straight from a magnum, with McGregor and Kidman in the back of a stretch limousine when the film premiered at Cannes in 2001. 

We were young(ish) then . . . what can I say? I also remember the first time I saw the musical on Broadway, at the Al Hirschfeld in 2019. 

The theatre's front of house, lobby and auditorium had been decorated in shades of red by scenic designer Derek McLane: rude rouge all over the place.

LaFontaine was 22 when she did Dreamgirls in London. It launched her career and, while she had a great time, it was sometimes tough. 

She told me she got tonsilitis 'seven times' during the run.

LaFontaine said Moulin Rouge! reminded her of a layer cake. 'When you take a bite, there are so many flavours!' 

I have a vague recollection of sampling some champagne, straight from a magnum, with Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman (pictured) in the back of a stretch limousine when the film premiered at Cannes in 2001

The 27-year-old travelled back to London a week ago in good health — even though she'd just had those pesky tonsils removed. 

'Fully healed!' she trilled.

'There's nothing that can emulate the amount of energy it takes to do a show like this,' she said, referring to her new project. 'Especially eight times a week.'

Director Alex Timbers is 'excited' about working with his new leading lady. 'She has huge star charisma, and depth and complexity,' he said down the phone from New York.

Of his leading man, Timbers said Bogyo had a look of 'guileless innocence' which he was seeking in Christian. 

McGregor and Kidman are seen with Moulin Rogue co-stars Jim Broadbent (centre), Gary McDonald (left), Jack Koman (second from right) and John Leguizamo (right)

He also liked the fact that Bogyo, like his character, is a writer. In fact, the actor's first play, Safe Space, is expected to premiere in London this year.

Bogyo studied at Yale before going to Rada. Moulin Rouge! will mark his professional stage debut. 

He talked fondly of being taken to countless shows in New York, where his father was a Broadway general manager, when he was growing up.

I remember the first time I saw the musical on Broadway, at the Al Hirschfeld in 2019. The theatre's front of house, lobby and auditorium had been decorated in shades of red by scenic designer Derek McLane: rude rouge all over the place

He declared that 'musicals in general have this magic about them, but this is a show dialled to you times ten'. 

LaFontaine, meanwhile, said Moulin Rouge! reminded her of a layer cake. 'When you take a bite, there are so many flavours!'

Well, I'm desperate for another slice. I was lucky enough to see it three times in New York. And I'm looking forward to catching it again at the Piccadilly Theatre.

Sir Elton John and the creators of landmark musical Billy Elliot have granted permission for the award-winning show to be staged in a brand new version.

The production, set to run at the Curve in Leicester for six weeks from July 7, 2022, will start from scratch and differ from what artistic director Nikolai Foster called the 'blisteringly brilliant' original that opened at the Victoria Palace in 2005.

That show was directed by Stephen Daldry, with a story and lyrics by Lee Hall and a fabulous score by Elton. 

For months I followed its rehearsal progress, from a sound stage at a film studio in Bow, East London, all the way to the Victoria Palace, where I witnessed Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling and his team create a masterpiece.

Sir Elton John and the creators of landmark musical Billy Elliot have granted permission for the award-winning show to be staged in a brand new version

Foster told me how he and Curve chief executive Chris Stafford met with Billy Elliot producer Eric Fellner, of Working Title, and asked if he would allow them to make a fresh start, with a smaller production. 

The deal allows the Curve to make the show their own 'and there isn't any pressure to honour what came before', according to Lucy Hind, the new show's choreographer. 'We're standing on the shoulders of giants,' Hind said. 

'We're starting from scratch, from the script as it was delivered to them [Daldry's team] on day one.'

Foster, who's directing, and Hind will be reaching out to local ballet schools, stage schools and theatre groups for their young stars.

The production, set to run at the Curve in Leicester for six weeks from July 7, 2022, will start from scratch and differ from what artistic director Nikolai Foster called the 'blisteringly brilliant' original that opened at the Victoria Palace in 2005 (above)

Casting director Jo Hawes has the task of finding the right youngsters. 'We have to be realistic,' Hind said. 

'They have to be of a standard where they can learn choreography.' But she and Foster would prefer children who haven't had 'their individuality and liveliness knocked out of them'. 

'Show me what makes you shine!' Hind said.

I've always felt, as Daldry once put it, that 'the fabric of our country runs through Billy Elliot'.

Foster agreed, noting that it's a show not just about community, but about gender and sexual equality — where great art becomes provocatively political. 

For me, that's why Billy Elliot remains one of the best musicals, ever.

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