BWW Review: NOTRE DAME DE PARIS, London Coliseum
It's difficult to overestimate how popular Notre Dame de Paris is in France, leaving audiences in raptures for 20 years. However, the critics were not kind when it was last performed in London back in 2000. Poor translation of the lyrics and a pre-recorded backing track seemed to be the main issues.
Despite this, the show has been performed all over the world, and this new run at the Coliseum will mark its 20th anniversary - this time with a new translation and a live string section. Unfortunately, this is not enough to save a show that often feels dated and self-absorbed.
The adaptation of Victor Hugo's epic tale of a Parisian underworld set in 1482 is predominantly about love, lust and all its consequences. Gypsy girl Esmeralda falls in love with Phoebus, but he is engaged to another.
Nevertheless, he develops a violent lust for Esmeralda, matched by that of archdeacon Frollo. Notre Dame's bellringer, hunchback Quasimodo has a pure and honourable love for Esmerelda, but it is not enough to save her from eventual death at the hands of both Frollo and Phoebus.
Despite the potential, the narrative of the show is the weakest element. The production is essentially a series of songs that often do not have much connection. Act I finishes with the stabbing of Phoebus and yet Act II begins with Gringoire and Frollo singing about literature and architecture changing the world.
This is not to say there is not some considerable talent onstage. Italian Angelo Del Vecchio gives a deep and throaty performance as the hunchbacked Quasimodo. Lebanese actor Hiba Tawaji is a sensuous Esmeralda, who flicks her hair provocatively and washes her limbs languorously in the font of the church. No wonder Frollo, played by a serious-looking Daniel Lavoie, has trouble resisting her.
Tawaji's voice is sweet and has a lovely tone; it is when she dials down the drama that she puts in her best performance. "Ave Maria Païen" is a touching and beautiful ballad, as Esmeralda is overcome by the spirituality of the cathedral. Martin Giroux and Jay are both in fine voice as Phoebus and Frollo.
The issue is not the talent, it is the style of performance. The overall impression of the show is that it is exaggerated and overdramatic. The production feels like a concert more than a theatrical production. There is no subtlety and little nuance.
Everyone enters and leaves the stage as dramatically as possible and all performers face the audience to sing, rather than reacting to each other, with the chorus moving manically like backing dancers. Main characters sink to their knees, gesture expansively and point to the horizon with alarming regularity.
Hugo's story also focuses on the 'sans-papiers' or illegal immigrants, who clash with authorities as they attempt to seek refuge, but this rather major point of the story is not developed any further than the chorus hurling themselves at metal barriers. This is a shame, not only because it is such an intrinsic part of the tale, but as it is so prescient in the current climate.
Musical Director Matthew Brind conducts musicians from the ENO, who throw themselves enthusiastically into the rock anthems and power ballads that make up Richard Cocciante's bold and loud score. There is a very specific feel to the music with sweeping, synthesised strings and huge crescendos. It is not for the faint-hearted, but complements the action on stage perfectly.
It is difficult to see why the story benefits from people scaling the walls of the cathedral and hanging from the inside of bells, but the chorus of dancers and acrobats are all superb. They bring a huge amount of energy to the production and often provide the only dramatic elements, as the main characters are fairly static.
However, even this excellent part of the show is often exaggerated; Phoebus's lament "Déchiré", where he lurches back and forth across the stage, torn by his feelings for Esmeralda and his fiancée Fleur-de-Lys features several dancers in underpants convulsing violently under spotlights which, rather than providing emotion and drama, looks faintly ridiculous.
The set does not do justice to the story, with Notre Dame itself looking like a brutalist concrete structure with wobbling gargoyles on stone posts, rather than one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture.
This is a loud and brash production, full of energy but lacking in depth and subtlety.
Photo Credit: Patrick Carpentier