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A CurtainUp London Review
Notre Dame de Paris

By Lizzie Loveridge

I thought I had been transported to an alien planet. I was surrounded by people cheering, giving a standing ovation to the new sung-through musical, Notre Dame de Paris This show is so bad, it could become chic. I haven't laughed so much for ages but my great hopes for another Les Mis were dashed.

Please do not ask me for a plot summary because I have completely lost the plot and I expect M. Hugo is revolving in his tomb, but still let us not hold that against this production. Oliver was a big hit without being exact to the Dickens' story, Oliver Twist. If you really want to know what Esmeralda's relationship is with the perverted priest, Frollo, the captain of the guard, Phoebus, and the hunchback, Quasimodo and you cannot face the large French tome, then maybe watch the Disney cartoon The Hunchback of Notre Dame. What is risible is the standard of lyric writing, or more exactly English translation of the lyrics from Oscar winning Will Jennings. To give an example, sung or rather growled, by Quasimodo, the hunchback, singing about his bell tower is this gem, "Notre Dame de Paris/ It's my home in the sky/ It is all part of me/ It is my world where I'm free/ Where I'm happy to be/ Here in my house in the sky/ The weather's always nice/ Summers pass us by/ Safe from winter's ice".

The music is -- well, how shall I put it? -- very French although composed by an Italian. Some tunes are good, some derivative, some reminiscent of the Eurovision Song Contest's "nul points". The singing was excellent but the sudden, harsh and often discordant, crescendos startled me out of my seat. However, give me a tape of the show and I could well be singing along to some of the tunes in a few weeks time.

It is visually where it all falls apart. Much of the choreography seemed based on St Vitus' Dance. In the middle of a song up to thirty dancers, break dancers and assorted acrobats fling themselves around on the stage, flailing arms, fingers outstretched, flick flacking in almost complete anarchy. During the opening number "The Age of the Cathedrals", high up on the wall, a hooded figure hangs by his knees, swings and pirouettes, then gesticulates as if "signing" the performance to those of us who are too impaired to appreciate the lyrics. Almost every song in the first act suffered from a surfeit of these distracting, uncoordinated, gyrating dancers. I loved the scenes where they swung round dancing with crash barriers on wheels. I gasped with merriment as three giant bells swung onto the stage with their human clappers, alternating arms and legs hanging out of the bell. There is abseiling and acrobatics.

The set looks like something out of "American Gladiators" and, in fact, many of the cast seem to be competing in some pointless contest to burn the most calories in the least amount of time. Large blocks of grey stone dominate, the rear wall has handles for people to hang off, steps to scale and shin up and three immense gargoyles pop up from their grey plinths. At one point (I'm not sure why) an reinforced steel joist, almost the full width of the stage, is lowered and balanced above the action. Asymmetrical prison bars are impressive as they fill the stage. The lighting is brash, blocks of vibrant blues with a red background or all the stage bathed in violet, ultra violet! The costume too had me confused. Much seemed to be 1970s lounge wear, hair was mostly New Age or punk, the soldiers wore a uniform which can best be described as Boxer Rebellion meets black eiderdown meets Ninja riot gear. All the principal singers have head set mikes which is a bit incongruous for 1482, surreal even.

This is such a shame when you realise what good voices the principals have. Australian Tina Arena's voice is clear as a bell (apologies for the terrible pun) as she sings pretty songs like "The Voluptuary" or "The Birds They Put in Cages". Canadian heart throb Bruno Pelletier sings the role of the poet Gringoire -- great voice, great presence and big hair. Luck Mervil is a charming rasta haired Clopin. Gastou as Quasimodo, hugely humped, hedgehog hair styled, rags round his legs, has the deepest register à la Joe Cocker, a voice in his boots, not so much tuneful as character rich. Frollo, (Daniel Lavoie) the villainous priest is a doppelganger Rowan Atkinson; vertical upstanding haircut, crow costume, clenched shoulders, arms tight by his side but with oh, such expressive hands. Steve Balsamo as Phoebus, bearing a striking resemblance to Neil Morrissey, was at his most exciting when singing "Torn Apart", "Two women want my love/ I'm glad I've got enough love for two!".

The directors of Notre Dame de Paris could learn from the maxim, "Less is more". Much of the staging struck me as pastiche. As Frollo sings, "Your love will kill me", stone plinths close in on him and he has to dart out from under to avoid a squashing. I liked the idea of a song about the discoveries happening in the world of the Renaissance, "Talk to me of Florence" but again those lyrics, "All those poems and songs/Men can read of right and wrong/ The little words are strong" . The finale, a brilliant but wasted opportunity for some peace, has Quasimodo singing his farewell to Esmeralda whilst in the background four duplicate Esmeraldas are suspended twirling from wires as they are winched up to heaven. But why four? What for?
Based on the novel by Victor Hugo
Book and Lyrics by Luc Plamondon
Music by Richard Cocciante
Directed by Gilles Maheu

With: Tina Arena, Steve Balsamo, Garou, Daniel Lavoie, Luck Mervil, Bruno Pelletier, Natasha St-Pierre
Set Design: Christian Rätz
Costume Design: Fred Sathal
Lighting Design: Alain Lortie
Sound Design: Manu Guiot Choreography: Martin Müller
English Lyrics: Will Jennings
Musical arrangements: Richard Cocciante, Jannick Top, Serge Perathoner
Running time: Two hours forty minutes with an interval
The Dominion Theatre, Tottenham Court Road London W1
Box Office: 0870 607 7460
Booking to October 31st 2000
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 24th May 2000 performance

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