Notre Dame de Paris– Truly a Spectacle

Spectacle: something exhibited to view as unusual, notable, or entertaining, especially: an eye-catching or dramatic public display. Merriam Webster

Originally debuting at the Palais des Congrès in Paris in 1998, Notre Dame de Paris had been produced in 23 countries before premiering in New York July 14, 2022, Bastille Day. It is, as advertised, a “spectacle” – an amalgam of musical theater, opera, and circus increasingly popular for its universal accessibility. Some of the visuals are wonderful and imaginative- all are BIG, vocals arrive powerful (think pop meets Broadway), acting is persuasive enough. Taken as its own genre, the piece visually arrests, entertains and occasionally touches.

Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Hunchback of Notre Dame– originally titled Notre-Dame de Paris, has been adapted for operas, ballets, film, television, and an animated cartoon. A live Disney musical based on the piece ran successfully in Germany, then made it as far as The Papermill Playhouse. Notre Dame de Paris is the latest in a long line of reinterpretations. Performed in French, the show offers subtitles projected on screens at either side of the stage.

Gian Marco Schiaretti (The Poet)

There’s a bit of conscious updating: the plight of an increasing number of immigrants seeking asylum (“gallows birds”) is emphasized with reference to the necessity of living together without prejudice. (Hugo was himself conscious of the latter.) Effort to place the scenario in the context of changing times, i.e the Renaissance, includes a song that features Michelangelo, Luther, and Gutenberg. Societal revolution, this iteration states, is inexorable.  

The story revolves around beautiful young gypsy Esmeralda (Hiba Tawaji) and three men who love her beyond reason: Captain Phoebus (Yvan Pedneault) drawn to her innocence (and sensuality) who is affianced to fourteen year-old Fleur-de-Lis (Emma Lepine), Archdeacon of Notre Dame, Claude Frollo (Daniel Lavoie) whose obsession finds him seeing Satan in the mirror, and the hunchback Quasimodo (Angelo Del Vecchio) moved by Esmeralda’s grace and touched by her exceptional kindness.

It’s 1482. “Men have reached for the stars to write their history in glass and stone,” sings poet and occasional narrator, Pierre Gringoire (Gian Marco Schiaretti). The marvelous set is a textured ‘stone’ wall on which acrobat/dancers climb and from which they hang or swing. ‘An imposing surface. Three cut-outs act as windows through which we sometimes view stairs. High stacks of movable stone create pillars from which gargoyles sprout. (Set Designer Christian Ratz) Desperate immigrants (treated as riffraff) who gather at Notre Dame to beg asylum are summarily cleared away by Captain Phoebus at the unchristian instruction of the Archdeacon.

Jay (Clopin) and Les Sans Papiers (those without papers)

Costumes for the poor by Caroline Van Assche are flowing (chiffon?) and rag-like=ripped, in muted color rather than browns, making movement more attractive. Important characters’ garments are one-upped without losing the feel. Frollo’s ensemble is commanding. Martino Muller’s choreography combines Broadway, break-dancing, and acrobatics. Though emotionally cogent, the surfeit of leaps, flips, tumbles etc. rarely feels cohesive. Dancers themselves are first rate. I can find no credit for the circus segments. There’s a great deal of hanging/dancing held by suspended ropes. The best of these is depiction of Quasimoto’s three favorite bells, the “Maries” (a song describes what each decries) which are lowered from above with humans as upside-down as clappers.

Esmeralda dances with captivating abandon. From his window, Frollo is fixated in a decidedly non clerical way; on the street, the Captain has a similar reaction. Dazzled, the gypsy responds to Pheobus. “Who can tell who I’ll love tomorrow/It’s written on the palm of my hand,” she flirts. “I’ll bedeck (bedeck?!) your body with the world’s gold,” the soldier brags. Clopin (Jay), the man who raised her when Esmeralda’s mother died, tells the young woman she’s no longer a child and must be careful. “You are approaching the age of love.”

Hiba Tawaji (Esmeralda)

The Feast of Fools elects Quasimodo as their king (Pope in the book) the ugliest man in Paris. “Girls you won’t laugh now when you see Quasimodo on the streets,” the hunchback poignantly sings ignoring jeers. Angelo Del Vecchio moves extremely well embodying the character’s handicap and performs with wrenching feeling in a voice so coarse one wonders how he gets through the week. (Recording?) He adoringly pursues the gypsy. Phoebus ‘rescues’ her. Kismet. They plan to meet that night. He’ll deflower the girl, he sings, before marrying young Fleur. Quasimodo is beaten and later tied to a wheel (great visual) where he begs for water. Esmeralda gives it.

Frollo shows signs of the push-pull he feels about the gypsy by calling her a witch, publicly declaring she should be thrown in prison. “I had only two lovers, religion and science/Oh to be a priest and love a woman…” There are more suggestive lyrics. The writer, is, after all, French. (In the novel, he renounces God and studies alchemy.) At his ‘master’s’ suggestion, Quasimoto naively offers the young woman sanctuary (a word curiously omitted in these lyrics) in a tower. The two form an uneasy friendship. The Archdeacon struggles with his demons literally looming over her sleeping form. Blackout. Sorry, but what happened here? ‘Never explained.  Esmeralda meets Phoebus at the cabaret. There’s bloodshed. She’s jailed. Frollo makes her an ‘offer.’

As the Archdeacon, Daniel Lavoie has a more traditionally Broadway, less pop voice than others. Though not pristine, it bears character angst. He carries himself with authority and visually suffers, if as expected. Gian Marco Schiaretti makes a very appealing poet, Emma Lepine is a credible Fleur-de-Lys, Jay a particularly sympathetic Clopin. Hiba Tawaji (Esmeralda) is less actress than singer; her vocals are clear and smooth, but not as emotive as one might hope. She moves beautifully. Yvan Pedneault (Phoebus) imbues his songs with deep richness.

Angelo Del Vecchio (Quasimoto), Hiba Tawaji (Esmeralda)

This is, of course, a tragedy. Some betrayals go unpunished, others have fatal consequences. If love conquers all, it does so after death.

Music by Richard Cocciante is dense, expressive, bass-and-percussion-heavy and very similar song to song. Don’t look for anything you can hum. Luc Plamondon’s lyrics are often elegiac and literate, but also unusually repetitive, the hypnotic nature of a spectacle, perhaps.

Director Gilles Maheu uses the large stage with creativity but exhibits little faith in stirring moments by placing dancers behind or above when our attention should be riveted on a downstage character.

Easily fixable, jarring, visual updates include: a giant suspended metal girder that could just as easily be made to resemble wood; Esmeralda’s prison cell manifest as a wire cage; a cabaret that doubles as bordello with modern squares of stark, bright red light between blank panels; a street fight between the poor wearing uniform, grey, cotton hoodies like a sci-fi film and soldiers in modern puffer vests; sneakers on the dancers…

Call-outs are due to Lighting Designer Alain Lortie for use of shadows and Sound Design for which I can find no credit.

Photos by Alessandro Dobici
Opening: Gian Marco Schiaretti (The Poet), Angelo Del Vecchio (Quasimoto), Daniel Lavoie (Frollo), Hiba Tawaji (Esmeralda), Yvan Pedneault (Phoebus), Emma Lepine ( Fleur-de-Lys)

Notre Dame de Paris
From the novel by Victor Hugo A Musical Spectacle by Luc Plamondon & Richard Cocciante
Directed by Gilles Maheu
Musical Director- Matthew Brind

David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
Through July24, 2022

About Alix Cohen (1751 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.