THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
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Notre Dame de Paris at the London Coliseum
By Luc Plamondon and Richard Cocciante
London Coliseum and around the world
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
London is now the 6th largest French city in terms of population, a fact not lost on President Macron when he came here to campaign, and noticeable to anyone walking around this town. It was great therefore to witness the joy of the mostly French expat audience singing along with this much loved show which has become something of a cultural phenomenon in the Francophone world. Everyone in the audience appeared to be able to sing the hit number 'Belle'.
It was first staged in the large, soulless, Palais de Congrès in 1998 and since Gilles Maheu's premiere production, which is recreated here, this epic rock opera has been translated into 9 languages, toured to 23 countries and been seen by 13 million spectators. It is what the French call Un Grand Spectacle, which is something of a different beast from a West End or Broadway musical, and Anglos complaining that it isn't one are rather missing the point.
It takes the hoary old tale of The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, filmed far too often, and gives it a rock opera treatment. The strikingly melodious score by Richard Cocciante fuses the schmaltz of popular chanson with the pulsating energy of rock. This production benefits from being sung in French (everything sounds better in French) and while Luc Plamondon's original lyrics sit well on the music he's no Lorenz Hart, so you'd be better not to pay too much attention to often prosaic English surtitles.
What is totally endearing about this production is how Maheu's concept makes the tale come alive by turning the ordinary folk of 15th century Paris into a red hot company of acrobats and tumblers. Well, why not? It fills the stage with colour and movement and gives the piece a youthful joie de vivre which leavens the rather sombre subject matter, of which we're all too familiar. There is, thank goodness, none of the sonorous piety of Les Mis here and if you're seeking literary fidelity, look elsewhere. You don't pine for these people. They get on with it and you enjoy the ride. Martino Mueller's playful choreography combined with 6 lead vocal performances of tremendous power are what make this acrobatic pageant fly.
The tale of the beautiful Esmeralda (sultry Hiba Tawaji) who dances daily in front of Notre Dame and while doing so enchants not one but three men has enough plot to go round and indeed the second act is mired in trying to tie up the loose ends.
She's one of the hated foreigners who are kept outside the city walls. You don't need to be Einstein to work out the contemporary resonance here, which this production underlines.
Her three suitors are Phoebus (Martin Giroux) a handsome cavalier; the unfortunate Quasimodo (Angelo Del Vecchio), who doesn't of course stand a chance; and Frollo (Canadian silver fox Daniel Lavoie) the lecherous Archdeachon of Notre Dame. Matters are complicate further by Phoebus' fiancée Fleur-de-Lys (Alyzée Lalande) who schemes against the gypsy trash to get her man back. The whole is narrated by the charismatic troubadour Gringoire played by Richard Charest, a French-Canadian recording artist who has a long history with the show, beginning as Phoebus.
As you might expect the sexual politics throughout are shocking and the more sensitive younger audience members might probably require therapy afterwards. Somebody needs to tell them – yes, things were really tough for beautiful young Francophone women and the bullied disabled way back... in 1998.