Notre Dame de Paris – London Coliseum, London

Music: Richard Cocciante 

Book and lyrics: Luc Plamondon 

Director: Gilles Maheu 

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Victor Hugo’s other famous novel (after the one with all the barricades) The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an abject lesson of the corrosive effects of the patriarchy. Esmerelda, a street dancer from Paris’s underclass, is so beautiful that several men fall in love with her – and when they cannot have her, she must of course be punished.

There’s more to it, of course. And Plamondon and Cocciante’s adaptation (using the novel’s French title, Notre Dame de Paris), back in London for its 20thanniversary tour, ensures all of the key plot points are hit. What it struggles to do is wring out much in the way of engaging characterisation.

As a musical goes, Notre Dame de Paris’ score is soaring: a sung-through rock opera with a sense of musicality and a variety of melody that one rarely gets from Britain’s own Andrew Lloyd Webber.

This production retains the original French lyrics, rather than the Anglicisation of the show’s 18-month run that started in 2000. There is a definite strength of the alliance between lyrics and music in this original form that is so easy to get lost when translating to another language.

The English subtitles, translated by Jeremy Sams, do their best to capture the lyricism and imagery of the original book. Most telling, though, is that two-thirds of the way through most of the musical’s numbers the subtitles give out completely: not a technical fault, but merely a sign that the lyrics are, well, a little repetitive.

Hiba Tawaji’s Esmerelda cuts a dignified figure amongst the men who seek to control her. Martin Giroux’s Phoebus, the soldier to whom she gives her heart, cuts a rather less imposing figure than the character from the novel deserves. This is even more true for Daniel Lavoie’s Frollo – for while Lavoie’s voice has the booming bass that makes his lyrical performance one of the best in the show, his onstage presence is so self-contained on the Coliseum’s enormous stage that it comes across as merely wooden.

More impressive is Angelo Del Vecchio’s Quasimodo, who among all the principal actors manages the best to combine a superlative vocal performance with a characterisation that suits the narrative. He is backed up in this regard by Richard Charest as the poet Gringoire, who doubles as a narrator and as such achieves a far better rapport with the audience than the rest of the cast.

Away from the narrative, Martino Müller’s choreography, when it works, is much the most impressive part of the show. Ensemble numbers, particularly those detailing the undocumented immigrants who are seeking shelter in the shadow of Notre Dame, bristle with energy and circus smarts. Tumbling, break dancing, wall jumping and aerial work provide a sense of satisfying spectacle to proceedings. Less successful is an Act II conflict between the immigrants and police, as the latter group’s “riot gear” is constructed in Caroline Van Assche’s costume design to resemble a bunch of cuddly blue Michelin men, robbing the moment of the menace it needs.

And that is Notre Dame de Paris all over: visually intriguing, musically exciting, but nothing quite tipping it over the edge into excellence. And yet it feels as if we the audience are expected to submit to this musical curio, just as Esmerelda is supposed to capitulate to the men who want her even as they do nothing to deserve her. For one night, we may do. But this is not a show that deserves any more than that.

Continues until January 27 2019 | Image: Contributed

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