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Notre Dame de Paris

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - July 15, 2022

Angelo Del Vecchio and Hiba Tawaji
Photo by Alessandro Dobici
Compared to the 100 years it took to construct the cathedral that bears its name, what's the two decades that passed before the all-singing, all-dancing, emotionally relentless French conflagration known as Notre Dame de Paris landed in New York? Anyway, if you have been unable to pop over to Europe or Asia for one of its many productions since this paradigm of power ballads first saw the light of day in 1998, then allons enfants to the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center where it opened last night, fittingly on Bastille Day.

Fans of the Luc Plamondon/Richard Cocciante musical (or perhaps "people's opera," as Cocciante, the show's composer, has referred to it) will not be disappointed in this adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel, which has come to be better known by its alternate title, "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame." But if this is all new to you, you might want to brace yourself, because there is barely a moment of down time (other than an intermission) in the unrelenting two-and-a-half-hour production. The cast of 30 includes seven main characters, five acrobats, two breakers, and sixteen dancers. There are also 51 separate numbers, a vast majority of them in the soaring ballad or anthemic mode. Live musicians and pre-recorded tracks accompany the enterprise. Oh, and it is performed entirely in French, though with English supertitles provided on a pair of screens on either side of the venue.

Notre Dame de Paris, directed for all its frenetic worth by Gilles Maheu, takes place in the year 1482. It is, as the poet/troubadour Gringoire (Gian Marco Schiaretti) informs us in the show's opening and one of its more popular numbers, "Le temps des cathédrals," the time of the cathedrals. Behind him, we watch workers putting into place the giant limestone blocks and gargoyles that make up one of the faces of Notre-Dame. As solid-seeming as these appear in Christian Rätz's set design, they open up, slide apart, and move upstage and into the wings at various points throughout the performance. Thus, the cathedral itself, or at least pieces of it, almost become characters in the production. Alain Lortie's backlighting is especially effective in these scenes that reveal glimpses of the interior.

Much of the first act is devoted to introducing the various characters and plot threads. You might want to brush up on the basics before you come in, because both the characters and their situations are hurled at us in rapid succession, one number bleeding into the next with no apparent connection among them for a long, long time. Essentially, Notre Dame de Paris is a story of passion, love, more passion, lust, and still more passion. At the center of it all is Esmeralda (Hiba Tawaji), who dances in the square in front of the cathedral and seemingly has the power to drive men wild. These include, especially, Frollo (Daniel Lavoie), the archdeacon of the cathedral; Quasimodo (Angelo Del Vecchio), the famous hunchback of the story; and Phoebus (Yvan Pedneault), Esmeralda's wealthy suitor who is inconveniently engaged to be married to another women. It is these men's obsession that drives the story and that is expressed in the trio "Belle," the show's other hit number.

With all that is going on as the plot threads twist and turn, at least I can happily report that all the lead performers sing beautifully and with notably distinctive voices. The standout is Angelo Del Vecchio, whose Quasimodo is a raspy emotional crooner suggestive of a hybrid of Charles Aznavour and Elvis Presley. What also helps alleviate some of the confusion are the costumes designed by Caroline Van Assche, so that the seven main characters are essentially color-coded for ease of recognition.

When we return for Act II, the dramatic tension heats to a boiling point as it becomes focused on the fate of Esmeralda, who, for all her spitfire bravado, is a pawn in the eyes of the men who lust after her. Frollo becomes the central antagonist figure, and a long scene involving the two of them is particularly powerful, almost operatic in its depth. The same can be said of the closing moments, in which Quasimodo comes into his own, a gothic version of Rodolfo in La Bohème.

Throughout the entire production, the stage is filled with a mayhem of dancing, choreographed by Martino Müller. Performers portraying asylum-seeking immigrants, peasants, carousers and workers are all over the place. I've not seen so many tumbling runs, back flips, and acrobatic feats outside of Cirque du Soleil. So, yes, from start to finish, there's a lot for the eyes and ears to latch onto and sort through. Notre Dame de Paris is definitely a one-of-a-kind event, an "it is what it is" experience that, while it will not appeal to all, certainly provides a no-holds-barred evening of extravagant romance and pageantry.

Notre Dame de Paris
Through July 24, 2022
Koch Theater at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
20 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: