It may be a bit unfair, but there’s no escaping comparing Notre Dame De Paris, currently exploding on the stage of the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, with its immensely popular French-literature-inspired brethren Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera.
All three are audience-pleasing spectacles with lusty, manipulative scores that hit the audience right between the eyes. The major difference involves how their stories are told. The latter two are constructed as bigger-than-life plots driven by bigger-than-life songs.
Notre Dame, on the other hand, is a series of very French pop songs that are the plot, storytelling not particularly effective due to their being sung in French, albeit with good translations flashed on several screens. There is very little non-sung dialogue. All the songs were brazenly amplified to rock concert level so that their ubiquitous crescendos and climaxes could be savored.
Based on the novel by Victor Hugo known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Notre Dame de Paris is written by Luc Plamondon and composed by Richard Cocciante, directed by Gilles Maheu, with energetic, eye-filling choreography by Martino Műller.
Poet, troubadour Gringoire (Gian Marco Schiaretti, long-haired, handsome with a powerful tenor voice) opens the proceedings with a thoughtful mini-treatise on the late 15th century and the eponymous church—“Le Temps des cathedrals.”
It seems that Paris was experiencing an influx of undocumented immigrants (“Les Sans-papiers”) just like present day France and, this country, these people were despised, particularly by the archdeacon of Notre Dame, Frollo (Daniel Lavoie, stalwart, a fine actor and singer).
The illegal alien theme joins a more mundane love story starring Esmeralda, an exotic gypsy (lovely, sinuous Hiba Tawaji) who attracts the romantic attention of Frollo, but who eyes the handsome, but out of reach, captain of the King’s cavalry, Phoebus (Yvan Pedneault, dapper and dashing with a beautiful carriage and voice). Phoebus has a fiancée, the fair, very jealous Fleur-de-Lys (Emma Lépine, making the best of a relatively small role).
The unofficial leader of the wretched refuse invading the cathedral is Clopin (the single-named Jay, who played the tough cookie as a big-voiced, observant rabble-rouser).
Or course, there is the ostensible lead character, Quasimodo, the twenty-something, hunchback bell ringer played by a vivid Angelo Del Vecchio who managed to move the audience despite tons of makeup and a ragged red wig. His dramatic interactions with Esmeralda after his protector Frollo imprisons her in the depths of the cathedral give the show some cinematic flow.
The second act begins with yet another history lesson in the form of a sung dialogue between Gringoire and Frollo, on opposite sides of the stage, meditating on the intriguing developments of the Renaissance (“Florence”).
The act goes downhill from there with Frollo’s machinations to requite his amorous intentions toward Esmeralda, including condemning her to death when she refuses him. Phoebus and Fleur-de-Lys are united; Clopin meets his fate; and Quasimodo’s heroism affects the fate of Esmeralda and other characters—all expressed in one rousing number after another, none evoking the medieval period but all landing successfully on the enthusiastic audience.
The incredible dancer/acrobats of the chorus are the backbone of this production and their numbers stopped the show several times with their powerful, airborne steps and partnering.
Notre Dame de Paris is performed within the impressive set designed by Christian Rätz. Several huge towers circulate about the stage, two topped with gargoyles that loom above the action. The backdrop consists of ever-changing images like the bars of a prison and the archways of the cathedral.
Caroline Van Assche’s multitude of colorful costumes suggest the period but are modern in look and flow, particularly Esmeralda’s skirts and Phoebus’ shiny uniform.
Alain Lortie’s vivid lighting design makes the most of the large playing area and Sébastien Quinet’s hair and wig inventions helped define the characters clearly.
Plamondon and Cocciante’s songs are entertaining and well sung. For some reason they brought back memories of listening to Aznavour, Montand, Piaf, Brel and other French singers whose songs always gathered momentum as they progressed. The many songs of Notre Dame de Paris began to sound alike, but each made an impact on the enthusiastic audience.
Maheu managed to give the impression that these songs constituted a show rather than a concert. The performers give their all and the audience responds in kind.
Notre Dame de Paris (through July 24, 2022)
David H. Koch Theater, 20 Lincoln Center Plaza, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.NotreDameDeParis.com
Running time: two hours and 35 minutes including one intermission