I have a somewhat strange relationship with The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The original book was by Victor Hugo (like Les Miserables), and so the plot has to be a tragedy spectacular.
Quasimodo falls in love with Esmerelda, a gypsy girl, who loves a duplicitous soldier. Religion, the dangers of masculine desire, and class result in death and tragedy.
I like the original text, although it has its anti-feminist issues.
The Disney adaptation softens these edges, and that movie absolutely has its charms.
Its straight-to-video sequel (terrible by the way) gives Quasimodo a girlfriend and has a same-sex canonical relationship (even if it is between a gargoyle and a goat I’m not kidding).
So I couldn’t help but be interested in seeing what a musical, entirely in French, does with the story.
Notre Dame de Paris
Like my own feelings, the show itself has had a interesting history. When it appeared at the Dominion in 2000, featuring a dodgy English translation, it was panned by critics.
But the show itself is also loved by audiences all over the world.
This time, at the London Coliseum, the play is sung-through in French (with added surtitles).
The theatre itself is normally home to opera. And while Notre Dame de Paris classes itself as a musical, I felt it had more in common with other shows that share its stage.
There are no spoken scenes. There are almost no changes of tone either. Each song feels like a sweeping anthem, aiming to pull at the heartstrings with melodramatic miasma.
When the volume is turned up to 11 at every moment, you’ll either take to it in two ways: entertained or exhausted.
It sometimes feels like hearing 20 ballads from the French entry of the Eurovision Song Contest.
So many wonderful moments
Notre Dame de Paris is wonderful in many respects.
The choreography by Martino Mullo is fantastic – each gymnastic flip and trick wows. The dancers have endless energy that fills the cavernous Coliseum space.
Most of the performers, well used to Notre Dame de Paris, effortlessly work their way through anthem upon anthem.
Daniel Lavoie, who has been a part of the production for decades, dishes out his numbers like a master. He plays the poet, effectively our narrator. He marries Esmerelda but he insists they cannot make love because he is ‘not a ladies man’. I couldn’t help but read some queer context in this character.
Tying together themes of religion, toxic masculinity and asylum, the show repeatedly tries and aims to feel modern.
But its soul, its 90s-feeling Eurovision-like soul, is too camp for that. The music is too overarching, too bombastic, the orchestra swelling at every moment. It should embrace the camp – not hide away from it.
Notre Dame de Paris is at the London Coliseum until 27 January.