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|A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Vox Lumiere's The Hunchback of Notre Dame
By Laura Hitchcock
How appropriate that The Coronet Theatre where actor Charles Laughton once produced plays is home to the theatrical premiere of Vox Lumiere's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Laughton starred in the 1939 version. Vox Lumiere, continuing its mandate of combining silent films with live musical interpretations, uses the 1923 version starring the equally superb Lon Cheney as Quasimodo.
Over the past decade Kevin Saunders Hayes, a classically trained composer, has taken his concept from rock opera concert versions of Fritz Lang's 1927 silent classic Metropolis, in which singers and musicians accompanied the film being shown, to the present choreographed theatrical version in which singers and dancers interpret the music in front of the screen where the 1923 Hunchback plays.
Although this concept needs some fine-tuning to avoid competing with the film, much of it heightens the experience. Apart from Cheney's magnificent performance, the silent movie technique now has some ludicrous moments, such as actors clutching their bosoms to express a heartfelt emotion. Here Hayes's score steps in to better interpret Victor Hugo's novel through song and orchestra.
The black leather costumes of the eight-member singing ensemble and orchestra are evocative of the executioner in medieval Paris who first tortures the hunchback Quasimodo and then the gypsy dancer Esmerelda, whose devastating beauty drives men mad, one way or another. Dashing Captain Phoebus abandons his society peers for love of her and the Archdeacon's brother Jehan is obsessed by her to the point of demanding she be put to the medieval Question in the torture chambers and appearing to enjoy the spectacle. The scene where the crowd jeers, throws kisses to the torturer whipping Quasimodo and is driven to erotic embraces among themselves during his agony surely remains among the most devastating passages in movies.
Hayes's score utilizes sacred music, such as the Kyrie Eleison, for the cathedral scenes and effectively uses the pop singing voice of Victoria Levy and simple pop ballads for Esmerelda, underscoring her status as an unaffected woman of the people. Greg Whipple's powerful tenor does Quasimodo proud. Michelle Franklin's rich voice is used as the Diva, Bryce Ryness projects venom both physically and vocally as Jehan and Anne Fraser aptly handles the vocal role, played by a man in the film, of Gringoire, the street singer.
Hayes's concept is reminiscent of the attempts to update a Shakespearean play by putting it in modern dress. His idea is to draw the audience into the play. The lighting design reflects this through spot lights set at the back of the stage which flash into the audience at heightened dramatic moments. Strobe lights project stars along the walls for the same reason. Luxious Lighting, the firm of Andrew Wilder and Bryan Barancik, created this concept, as powerful as the rock opera is loud. Whether these very contemporary sound and light elements are too intrusive depends largely on the taste of audience members.
The film itself is so good that it's easy to overlook the live performers. Sometimes, particularly in the climactic riot scene when the crowd fights with soldiers to rescue Esmerelda from Notre Dame Cathedral, the pink and green spotlights and choreography stage a climactic riot all their own. On one occasion platforms holding singers were pulled in front of the screen and its subtitles, upstaging the movie. These concepts were apparently intended to divide the focus and underscore the multimedia aspects of the event. Sometimes they were distracting, sometimes heightening.
Overall Hayes seems to have a good sense of what should go where. One unfailingly effective concept is the use of side screens which flank the movie with production stills or complementary medieval tableaux.
Production values are excellent. Hayes conducts his own score which contains some lovely and stirring movements. The musicians are flawless. Lala Ghahreman's choreography and Gabriel Previtera's stage direction are dynamic and faithful to Hayes's vision.
Film purists may feel overwhelmed by the rock opera staging but it does underscore the timelessness of this masterpiece. Future Vox Lumiere productions include The Phantom of the Opera and Peter Pan. I'll be there.
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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