That Victor Hugo has done alright for himself, inspiring two of the biggest musicals of all time. But the French global musical phenomenon that is Notre Dame de Paris never took off in this country in the way that Les Mis did. It nonplussed critics when it ran in the West End in 2000, and for its return it’s playing just seven performances at the Coliseum.
Yet its songs have been mega-selling hits for composer Richard Cocciante and lyricist Luc Plamondon, it’s toured more than 20 countries, been translated into seven languages, been recorded a dozen times.
The spectacle of the show is undeniable, from the de trop opening – three key changes, giant gargoyles, 20 dancers rolling around the massive stone-effect set – but so too is the all-consuming naffness. It reaches heights of naffness many would have thought impossible.
This is partly because it’s just so embarrassingly earnest. The cast all perform to the audience, rather than to each other. Which is fine, that’s part of the rock concert vibe, but they do it with so much pained emoting and so little depth, and that makes it feel a bit silly.
By starting at that level, they’ve got nowhere to go – and that proves to be a problem in a show that is an exercise in outdoing itself from minute to minute: more colour, more cast, more songs, more acrobats, more key changes. Bigger, bigger bigger.
Angelo del Vecchio’s Quasimodo is particularly guilty of that, gutturally roaring his lines so hard that he might at any moment simply throw up.
It’s a different idiom, let’s give it leeway for that. Leeway, too, for being 20 years old. And there’s beauty, to be fair, in Martino Muller’s wild choreography which combines jittering dance with outstanding acrobatics. But it still has low points, like soldier Phoebus singing about how bloody annoying it is to be loved by two women, while some men in just their pants dance behind him.
For the nostalgic among the audience, this will go down a treat. It is epically unchanged. But the world around it has moved on. Set, costume, lighting, musical styles have all come a long way in 20 years. Like one of the gargoyles on Notre Dame’s facade, this is big and brash and grotesque; it’s also set in stone and a bit worn by time.