To mark its 20th anniversary and 5,000th performance, Notre Dame de Paris came to the London Coliseum. Camille Lapaix saw it 20 years ago - her first experience of theatre in 1998. Now she's back to review:

“C’est une histoire qui a pour lieu Paris la belle en l’an de Dieu mille quatre cent quatre-vingt deux… Histoire d’amour et de désir – nous les artistes anonymes de la sculpture ou de la rime tenterons de vous la transcrire pour les siècles à venir”

“This is a tale that takes its place in Paris fair, this year of Grace Fourteen hundred eighty two… A tale of love and lust – we are the unknown artists, playing with clay or rhymes and we will try to engrave it for the centuries to come.”

Angelo Del Vecchio (image courtesy of Alessandro Dobici)

The famous words of Le Temps des Cathédrales opens Notre Dame de Paris in the London Coliseum. Above the stage, the words celebrate what marks the twentieth year since Notre Dame de Paris opened, back in 1998 in Paris’ Palais des Congrès. This production has had time to be reworked and chiselled since it last stopped by the UK in 2000, where it was poorly received. There were most likely dozens of reasons as to why it was so ostentatiously disliked by London audiences… cough – fashionable dislike of the French.

But it can be agreed that an overwhelming comparison to typical West End musicals can only infer an outdated, brash and grotesque feeling from the show. That is, if you cannot close your eyes and ignore what you know about musicals. Because Notre Dame de Paris was initially created as a sung-through, rock-opera for a French audience who are used to such spectacles. Characters waltz their way in powerful and overdramatic pop ballads while staring at the public.

That is exactly what is presented at the London Coliseum.

Notre Dame London Coliseum

Image courtesy of Alessandro Dobici

Notre Dame de Paris is set in the Parisian underworld and streets of the 15th century, a story of love and lust, outrage, revolution and injustice. And not much has changed since the original 1998 production. Quasimodo’s makeup is still preposterously grotesque, the Gargoyles are still hovering around the characters in most of the scenes. Some small details have been altered, easily missable if you aren’t familiar with the musical, but touches that show the effort to shape the production towards a more relevant context, giving the women back some of the power in the show.

The Sans-Papiers costumes are different too. From daring dreadlocks to colourful frocks, they are more vivid and vibrant.

They draw attention.

They make you pay attention.

And it works. Soon enough, you forget about beggars seeking asylum in Notre-Dame in 1484 and see ageless human beings, refugees who are refused basic human rights for safety and sanctuary.

Notre Dame London Coliseum

Jay (image courtesy of Patrick Carpentier)

The choreography (thanks to Martino Müller) is sharper and bolder, the acrobatics more and more impressive in a style that mixes circus, modern jazz and hip-hop – a medley of vivacity, colours and life. L’Attaque de Notre Dame shows the undocumented immigrants fighting against Phoebus and his men, all wearing costumes strikingly similar to the ones of the current French riot squads.

In a show where the set itself becomes fully intrinsic to the narrative, the synthesis of Luc Plamondon’s lyrics and Richard Cocciante’s music soars onstage, unveiling superb performances by the main cast and ensemble alike. Esmeralda (Hiba Tawaji) is young, sensuous and carefree when singing about the mountains of Andalusia. But she especially comes into her own as she sings the Ave Maria Païen. Overwhelmed by the spirituality of Notre-Dame, she slowly turns into a revolted woman, scorched by the selfish desires of men who are unable to live in a world where they do not own what they covet.

Hiba Tawaji (image courtesy of Alessandro Dobici)

Frollo (Daniel Lavoie) is a token of quality. Lavoie gives his character a subtle distinction as ages, emphasised by a new costume that highlights the difference between the Priest and the Man. The presence and authority that emanates from this performance are chilling and scene-stealing, thanks in part to the unerring lighting by Alain Lortie.

Angelo del Vecchio’s Quasimodo is true to character, with rock ballads sung in a deep, throaty voice that find poignant beauty in the apparent ugliness. His naivety and pure devotion, first to Frollo and then to Esmeralda, evidence del Vecchio’s character as the polar opposite of Dorian Gray. There is something about this man, singing alone on a stage, that can break your heart,

“God you made the world all wrong, let her have her shining knight.
“Beauty to the rich belongs not to us outside the light.
“I am just an ugly stain that the world just wants to hide.
“God you gave me so much pain, were you ever on my side?

Notre Dame London Coliseum

Angelo Del Vecchio (image courtesy of Patrick Carpentier)

Notre Dame de Paris is a lot of things – colourful; earnest; a spectacle and a concert; a ballet of acrobatics to the tune of rock ballads; yet faithful to its original production. It is certainly no Les Misérables, nor is it a fancy, meticulous musical.

But nobody asked it to be, and that’s what gives it such beauty.

 

★★★★☆

Notre Dame de Paris played at the London Coliseum until 27 January 2019 to mark its 5,000th performance. For more information, please visit the show website.