The Theatreguide.London Review
Notre Dame de Paris
Dominion Theatre 2001
Yet another French musical, yet another 'grand turkey' you can hear the critics grumble the length and breadth of Theatreland as the theatregoing cognoscenti bitch that 'it's revenge for Waterloo!'
Yes,it can only be Notre Dame De Paris (let's call it Hunchback), in town to build on the success of a record-breaking run in Paris.
And it's rather good.
Not perfect and hardly a classic, Notre Dame De Paris still gets my money because: a) it's got Tina Arena in it, b) it's dramatic, c) it's got hummable tunes, d) it's a great night out, and e) it's got Tina Arena in it.
Oh, and it's not really French at all, since there are no French members that I can spot in the energetic multi-nationality cast except for a healthy quota of French Canadians (EU regulations helping them out there then), while the lyricist and director are also Canadian and the composer is basically Italian.
Hunchback is unashamedly a concert of a concept album - delivering high octane europop to moody lighting and set that goes with classic French grand spectacle.
The fact that a crisp pre-recorded soundtrack takes the place of a live orchestra/band gives you the clue as does the frenetic ensemble dancing in the style of a TV commercial from trendy garment company The Gap.
All the songs are guitar/keyboard arrangements of verse-verse-chorus numbers. Dramatic effect is produced by repeating a word or phrase ten times and then straight into the next chorus.
By default it's sung-through, and the plot is basically throwaway – bring your own summary or ask the person sitting next to you - with no indications given in the book (since there isn't one) as to what's happening.
Where you can hear them, English lyrics by Will Jennings (he worded Titanic theme My Heart Will Go On) are a tad facile, but add punch to the original somewhat whimsical French versions.
Tina Arena is achingly perfect as the simmering gypsy Esmeralda, adding her own magic to tunes such as The Pagan Ave Maria, Live For the One I Love and the duet Shining Like The Sun with Fleur-De-Lys, played opposite a lamentably under-used Natasha St-Pierre.
Matching Arena's power is clarion-voiced Bruno Pelletier as narrator Gringiore, who grabs his moment by belting out the sublime intro The Age Of The Cathedrals.
As Quasimodo, Garou is a little one-dimensional but gives his all in big numbers like The Bells with its giant bells with human clappers.
Also working hard are Steve Balsamo as the dashing Phoebus, Daniel Lavoie as the sinister priest Frollo and Luck Mervil as the refugees' leader Clopin.
Thanks to the composers and director Gilles Maheu, the mould of the West End/Broadway musical has been deliberately broken here - and well it should, since our musical type hardly sits well with French showbiz tradition.
But unlike Lautrec, a perfectly reasonable musical destroyed only by its UK production team, Hunchback takes up where Rent started to go, i.e. to talk to a broader spectrum of theatregoers by letting the music and the performance take centre stage.
In terms of le grand spectacle it's a winner, if not to everyone's taste. Now, if only they'd rejig it and give Tina the final number...
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