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Review

Notre Dame de Paris
at the Dominion Theatre

Review by Darren Dalglish
25th May 2000

This French musical, which has taken Europe and Canada by storm, has now made its way across the channel. The music is by Italian composer Richard Cocciante, and lyrics are by Luc Plamondon, with new English translation by Will Jennings (Oscar-winner for 'My Heart Will Go On' from the film "Titanic".) The show first opened in Paris in September 1998 and has played to full houses. It also had a sell-out run on a four-month tour of Canada. The album of the show was at No 1 for 17 weeks in the French charts. The show confidently comes to the West End with high expectations and I too was expecting something special, but sadly, 'as a production', it does not live up to its pre marketing hype.

The musical is based on Victor Hugo's classic novel in which a hunchback called Quasimodo, who dwells in the bell tower of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, falls in love with a gypsy girl named Esmeralda. However, she is also lusted after by the priest 'Frollo' who manipulates events to gain her love. To complicate matters Esmeralda is in love with 'Phoebus', who is engaged to Fleur-de-Lys.

Unfortunately, this is an awful production, which is such a shame because the music is superb!! The show is a hit and miss affair with only drops of quality seeping out. The choreography does not compliment the story at all. In fact, I cannot see how break-dancing and acrobats could possibly help to convey the story. Yes, there are some good spectacles, but frankly they do nothing to enhance the story line, or to give you a feeling for the plot. The men crawling up and down the wall at the back of the stage only served to distract me as I was worried that they may slip and fall as they did not appear to have any harnessing protecting them. In the second act when the priest was singing, there were three big stone blocks following him that were so precise that I became more interested in following the stones than becoming emotionally involved in the song!! The show lacks dramatisation and passion, effectively killing any hope of feeling compassion for any of the characters. The characters were wafer thin and more like cardboard cut outs, then flesh and blood characters questioning the purpose of their life, the quality of their faith and the worth of their love.

This rock musical is sung through, but the sound quality is so poor is was sometimes hard to make out what was being said, and not using a live orchestra certainly added to the amateurish sound of the show. Although this is a very poor production, the music is excellent. So good in fact I went out the next day and bought the CD!! I particularly liked "The Age Of The Cathedrals", and "Dance My Esmeralda".

It is very hard to judge the acting ability of the cast as essentially there was not much acting to do!! The cast came on stage sang a song and then left. I have to say the show was more of a 'Rock Concert', than a 'Rock Musical'.

The musical has seven principle stars and seven alternate principals. This could be a problem if you book to see the show because you are a fan of one of the cast. I was particularly looking forward to seeing Steve Balsamo again after his breathtaking performance in "Jesus Christ Superstar" at the Lyceum theatre a year or so ago. So I was disappointed that his part was played by an alternative principle on this evening. So be warned, try and find out which of the principles will be playing on the night you book your tickets.

I found the singing performances reasonably sound, although there were some shaky renditions!! Australian recording star Tina Arena, who plays 'Esmeralda' has a fine voice, but I liked Natasha St-Pierre's, who plays 'Fleur - De - Lys', far better. Garou as 'Quasimodo', has a very distinct voice that you will either love or hate. Daniel Lavoie as 'Frollo' and Bruno Pelletier as 'Gringoire' both perform adequately, and Dean Collinson, who was standing in for Steve Balsamo, also performs satisfactory as 'Phoebus'. However, I cannot say that any of them were outstanding.

The show has received a critical battering from the popular press…. JOHN PETERS for THE SUNDAY TIMES says, "This is one of the most stupefying awful musicals I have seen in two decades." He goes on to say, "Why do we have such high-octane foreign garbage when, as the other fellow once said, we have plenty of low-octane British garbage of our own." NICK CURTIS for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "The French have a word that describes this witless Gallic musical, but it's too rude to use here. Suffice to say that this is a complete crock, monsieur. Writer Luc Plamondon and composer Richard Cocciante have taken one of the world's best-known stories and turned it into a nonsensical, through-sung procession of Europop ditties, re-upholstered with buttock-clenchingly clumsy English lyrics by Will Jennings." THE INDEPENDENT called it "A load of old bells" THE EXPRESS called it "All bats and no belfry". " CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH liked the music, but not the production saying, "The one thing that can be said in favour of the piece is that Richard Cocciante's score is a winner, at least for those, like me, with lowbrow musical tastes. The more fastidious will probably think the music naff and too loud, but I found the soaring power pop and tortured masochistic ballads stirring. Unfortunately almost everything else about the show is a complete flop." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for the GUARDIAN says, "In Gilles Maheu's antiseptic production we seem to have a rock concert in frocks spiced up with displays of muscular aerobics from performers purporting to be asylum-seeking refugees. The story sinks under the relentless barrage of Richard Cocciante's music, which has a seamless Gallic monotony. And Luc Plamondon's lyrics, rendered into something passing for English by Will Jennings, are often impenetrable - or raise a derisory titter." THE STAGE headlined, "Story sinks in musical mire." JANE EDWARDES for TIME OUT says, "The show is a disaster." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES was not too harsh saying, "There are occasional imaginative production touches: huge bells with writhing, upside-down humans for clappers, for instance. But if the show's creators aspire to mount a telling attack on an unjust, hypocritical, brutal society they have some way to go. Another Les Mis this isn't." However THE DAILY MAIL gave a favourable review saying Tina Arena was "superb" and saying "I really respect, and maybe love, this show."

"Notre-Dame De Paris" had the potential to be a great musical. It has great music that is sadly let down by a production that looks and feel cheap and amateurish. Is it worth seeing? Yes it is, but only for the music. Of course you could just buy the CD, particularly as the CD costs half the price of the theatre ticket!!! However even through I found the performance poor, the audience seemed to love it and applauded loudly at the end.

(Darren Dalglish)


Next review by Tom Keatinge
tomkeatinge@hotmail.com
March 2001

Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris has been reproduced in many forms, from silent flick to cartoon interpretation, and whilst I have witnessed only a small selection of these creations, I feel confident in making the assertion that Luc Plamondon (book and lyrics) and Richard Cocciante (music) have delivered the most turgid and dire reconstitution yet. How on earth has two and a half hours of unmemorable tuneless blaring become the worldwide phenomenon that it has? (To be fair, the punters at the Dominion’s Saturday matinée were, in part, on their feet at the curtain call.) Modern musicals are often accused of being “set whistlers”, with dramatic staging and sets being seemingly more important than a decent score – this production did not even enjoy that saving grace, although the lighting and use of gauze was at times impressive. Furthermore, when it opened, the show was castigated for using a pre-recorded sound track (backing vocals included, it would appear). To reduce a West End show to little more than an upscale Saturday night karaoke at the pub ‘round the corner (with several performances on a par with what one would expect down the local) seems disappointing to say the least, and hopefully does not represent the beginning of a cost-saving trend. Special mention must, I suppose, therefore go to the sound operator at the back of the stalls, who appeared to be orchestrating the entire show with a mouse.

Having not seen Notre Dame de Paris, when it first opened in May last year, I thought the advent of Dannii Minogue, playing the part of Esmeralda, would make a good excuse for a visit. The story of Notre Dame de Paris is well known; bell-ringing hunchback falls in love with gypsy beauty Esmeralda who, until her hour of direst need, ignores his love in favour of others. Minogue’s initial entrance was greeted by a ripple of applause – frankly she should have quit whilst she was ahead, for she proceeded to belt and shriek her way tunelessly through virtually every number. Despite my disappointment with the production, some of the singing was indeed excellent, in particular Gringoire (John Partridge) the poet who acts as observer to and commentator on the action as it unfolds. But whether strong or weak, the singing was undermined by a lack of imagination in Plamondon and Cocciante’s score. The music and lyrics of most numbers were extraordinarily repetitive and unsophisticated, and were blasted at the audience as if this were a rock concert.

The collection of dead bodies on stage at the end of the show said it all – only wonder was that there were none in the audience.

Tom Keatinge
tomkeatinge@hotmail.com
Tom Keatinge Web site


Next Review by Jim Sutherland
Email: Jimandsim@aol.com
27th May 00

With more hype than any other show in the history of West End Theatre, the English translation of the French hit Notre Dame de Paris finally opened at the Dominion Theatre on May 23 2000.  I was fortunate enough to get a ticket for the first Saturday evening performance and on arrival at the Theatre was thrilled to learn that the original cast (without any alternates) would be performing.  With a sense of expectation I took my seat and the show began.

Adapted from the novel by Victor Hugo, this sung-through musical-cum-rock opera is based on the tragic story of the hunchback Quasimodo's unrequited love for the beautiful gypsy girl Esmeralda.  The real tragedy, however, is that this show ever made it accross the channel in the first place.  Although there are some good songs (opening number Age of the Cathedrals sticks in my mind), these are completely ruined by the distorted backing tape, which sounded little better than computer music.  Added to that, the fact that a lot of the lyrics did not make sense and others could not be understood, the story was extremely difficult, if not impossible, to follow. 

The real reason this musical is so bad however, is that there is next to no acting during the whole show.  The singers make there entrances (usually from the otherwise redundant orchestra pit) sing there songs and exit in the same fashion.  On the whole, the singing was good - if nothing special.  I was particularly impressed with Bruno Pelletier as Gringoire, who produced the most enjoyable part of the show by singing the encore acapella for about 30 seconds before the backing track boomed in and ruined it.  The cast is completed by a bunch of hyperactive dancers and acrobats who, although very professional, made me wonder what on earth they were supposed to be doing there, as I could find no link between them and the wafer thin plot.  Another major faux-pas was the costuming.  Apart from the fact Steve Balsamo (playing soldier Phoebus) looked like he'd arrived late for the show and had gone on stage in his normal clothes, all the singers had to contend with pop concert style radio mikes, making them look stupid as well as making it impossible to kiss (not bad for a love story).   

In conclusion, Notre Dame de Paris is a perfect example of an awful show which should have been so good.  Hugo's story has masses of potential to be a great musical, however this version fails to deliver on practically every count.  I notice from Darren's review that most theatre critics are as unimpressed as I was, however one review he didn't mention was Bill Haggerty's comment in the NEWS OF THE WORLD, which summed it up perfectly for me. " Les Miserables it's not - Miserable it definitely is"

(Jim Sutherland)


Next Review by Jonathan Richards
Email: Jonathan@sevin.co.uk
May 00

A year or so ago, a relative of mine bought me the complete recording of this French/Canadian show based on the novel 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' by Victor Hugo.  The recording was a fine one with very good songs, quality lyrics (in French) and generally good performances (even from gravelly sounding mononamed Garou).

  Therefore, when I heard that this musical was coming to London with English lyrics by Will Jennings (of 'Titanic' fame), I hastened to buy a ticket.  Tonight I witnessed what has taken France and the US by storm and I can tell you that though it does not live up to its harsh British reviews, it is hard to see what made foreign audiences go bazurk with.

  Unfortunately, a couple of understudies were present, most notably Australian Tina Arena (who I am told is very good) was replaced by Hazel Fernandes as Esmeralda and Garou being replaced by Ian Pirie as Quasimodo.  I can only pray that the reader of this does not see the latter of the two on stage since he really was very unpleasant to see and hear.  But I will not speak too much of these people since you are more likely to see someone else.

  A good deal of the beauty of this show has been lost in the French to English translation by Jennings, with the lyrics being reduced to banal rhyming couplets, and somehow, English lyrics don't quite work with the 'caviar of music' - it has an aquired taste.  It is not totally bad and comes out clearly and well (since it is prerecorded).  The musical has been marketed as 'a musical spectacular' and indeed that is what it is - it has music, and it is spectacular (in fact very much so).

  Combined, Christian Ratz's set, Alain Lortie's lighting and Fred Sathal's slightky fruit salady costumes the show looks very atmospheric and stunning and is ingeniously complemented by Martino Muller's clever and inventive choreography.  The direction is a bit lazy, but the musical looks very good.

  One of my main criticisms would be that the show is just a stream of songs completely unlinked and it lacks dramatic anything, and it is something it could do with.  Some of the performances are not so good, but much of the singing is very good, particularly from Bruno Pelletier as Gringoire.

  I don't really know what else to say about this show - it left me wondering whether I liked it or not, but it most certainly wasn't bad (considering the West End was graced with the presence of 'Tess' not that long ago).  Why not see it and decide for yourself...

(Jonathan Richards)


Next Review by Robert O'Keefe
Email: robert.o'keefe@virgin.net
29th May 00

Well I must admit I was somewhat doubtful what with all the complaints about the sound and the alternate / understudy situation. But, i was in for a treat.

Brief Synopsis: "ESMERALDA" Hazel Fernandes is part of a group of refugees led by CLOPIN Luck Mervil when she dances she is seen by PHOEBUS Steve Balsamo, FROLLO Daniel Lavoie and QUASIMODO Ian Pirie, all of whom fall instantly in love with her, and here in lies the problems FROLLO is a Priest, PHOEBUS is to marry FLEUR-DE-LYS Natasha St-Pierre, and QUASIMODO is a deformed Hunchback.

Here I should point out that the performers names listed above are the cast I saw on Monday the 29th May this year. Mind you to find out these names I had to ring the Theatre who gave me the number of the stage door who gave me the number of the Production Company. As, has been mentioned on the FORUM for this page there is no way of knowing who you saw at the Theatre no signs, planned performances or announcements.

I don't think people need much more of a synopsis than is above, suffice to say it's a love story.

To the Performances and the show itself, well I saw the alternate ESMERELDA & QUASIMODO but pretty much all the other principal players, and I must say I wasn't disappointed. As I posted to the Forum I wasn't over impressed by Tina Arenas' performance on the "Tonight at the Palladium" show. But to be fair before saying she isn't any good I'd need to see her in the show. And to answer a post on the Board her weight does have nothing to do with it, what I said was [ personal preference, based on very limited experience ] I thought that Hazel Fernandes was the prettiest, and as you need to believe that all these men could instantly fall for this "vision" that would make it easier for me. Although I must say her [ Tina Arena ] picture in the programme could make me seriously start hedging my bets :o)

"Age of the Cathedrals", " Torn Apart", "Belle is the only word", " The Birds they put in cages", " I'm a Priest" and " Dance my Esmerelda" stood out for me as songs. With " Age of the Cathedrals" being my favourite having heard the original French and now the English versions I think it is one of the best songs in a musical of any of the shows I've seen.

The staging of this show is spectacular, words can't do it justice it has to be seen. Stand out sections for me include: "The Age of Cathedrals" - I've never seen a better use for a climbing wall, the performers on it instil me with awe, as I get a nose bleed in high heels, and no I don't wear them...... that often :o). And " Dance my Esmerelda" - Which I could not have imagined staged better, and when you think your imagination isn't bound by practicalities like " How much will it cost? " and " is it possible??" That is the best compliment I can give it.

Altogether an excellent show. Don't listen to the critics, go and see it yourself and then make up your mind. I was undecided after hearing all the contrasting views but I can honestly say it was worth the trip on it's own and I will be back..... if the critics don't manage to close it first.

(Robert O'Keefe)



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