>the songs of notre dame de paris by the alliance francaise

>reviewed by adi soon

>date: 28 nov 2002
>time: 8:30pm
>venue: the agf theatre
>rating: **1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


I first caught the original musical 'Notre Dame de Paris' at London's West End. Even now as I strain to recall the experience, I can only make out fragments of what had transpired on stage. I even remember walking out midway, and then turning back to return to my seat after being greeted outside by the frosty London evening. Between a rock and a hard place, I chose to return to Notre Dame.

I watched it till the end, yes, and yet I didn't know at the time that the show had been massively lambasted by the critics. After all, the entrance of the theatre had given no clue. With sterling excerpts of quotes masquerading as praise plastered all over the place, I had all the motivation I needed to enter the theatre.

In the end, it turned out that 'Notre Dame de Paris' worked better as a concert than a musical for it lacked clarity in the story telling. Suffering from a lack of visible motivation, characters entered and exited out of nowhere, leaving bewildered audiences in their wake. In the Paris created on this musical stage, two characters can stand next to each other and suddenly be in love. And the only reason we know why is because they say so. No struggles, no fawning, no love at first sight, no nothing.

What the musical seemed to be going for instead was the big blockbuster effect. Perhaps there were ambitions to recreate a 'Les Miserables' type success. With both musicals based on Victor Hugo novels, perhaps lightning could strike twice. With spectacular sets, a troupe of acrobatic backup dancers and visual effects galore, this was a show that was going for the big time.

Sadly, this was not to be.

Yet the path of love for this musical is a strange one. As dismal as the production was overall, its one saving grace was its songs. Taken as a whole, they had a monotonous texture, which never deviated from pounding, self important and overemotional chords.

Taken individually however, each was a sparkling gem, the kind that people remember effortlessly, the kind that songwriters exist to write. Mind you, I thought I was the only one who felt this way. That was until I realized that in fact many people agreed with this, that the songs were great even though the show itself could be better.

I had hated the musical when I left the Dominion theatre in London, but I searched out the CD anyway. To rediscover the drama of what I had witnessed on the stage was a revelation. Hate turned to love, although it was the tempered kind that acknowledges faults as well as the good stuff.

>>'Its simplicity worked better than the vastly more expensive original in conveying the story.'

This adaptation by the Alliance Française, THE SONGS OF NOTRE DAME DE PARIS bore much of the same structure as the original. Presented on a smaller scale, it still share many similarities with the original, which could not be helped since it was the same script. Thus the flaws that had originated elsewhere could not be blamed on them. Getting this issue out of the way then the focus of my review will be on the craft of this particular staging, how the performers and production team fared on the night itself.

The energy surrounding the theatre was electric the day I saw the show and for good reason. It was the culmination of months of hard work on the part of everyone involved. The community of French expatriates had turned up in full support and there was an obvious sense of pride in the air. Still, the fact remained that the cast was composed of a mix of professional and amateur performers. The overall effect though enjoyable varied in quality.

A number of problems plagued the show. The first was the strategy to present the show in French and English. As mentioned in my preview, the reason was so as to allow English speakers to understand the musical while being able to appreciate the beauty of the French original. I had anticipated problems with this strategy before I entered the theatre. In effect, however, it worked very well. The dual language format did not sound schizophrenic (as I thought it might), nor was understandability sacrificed. In fact, it worked as Natalie Ribbette (producer/director) had said it would. Instead the problem came from an unexpected place. Watching the show, it was obvious that some of the performers were proficient in one language disparately more so than in the other. Thus Cyril Petit as Gringoire sounded great in French, but was dismal in English. Likewise in reverse, the French of John Rowles as Quasimodo and Vincent Pang as Frollo was utterly butchered while their English was much better. I suppose ultimately, it is easier to sing in one's own language, infusing emotion comes more naturally, and worries of mispronunciation do not interfere with the performance of the song.

In terms of vocal quality, there was likewise much variation. Hartini Ismail as Esmeralda impressed with her quality voice. She was pitch perfect and the songs sounded exactly like they were supposed to sound. I was told as well that she startled a few people with her renditions in French, convincing some that she was a French speaker when she was not. Her almost flawless rendition however was somewhat restrained at the top notes, and when it came to the time to belt, she did not seem to have the confidence to go all the way.

John Rowles was a satisfying Quasimodo with his understated characterization, and excellent physicality of the famous hunchback. In English, his lyrics sounded crisp and clear, and I was able to hear every word. Matched with a Garou-like gruff voice, his Quasimodo was the most perfect one could have, save for the French bits. Cyril Petit as Gringoire was similarly outstanding. With bags of presence, an enigmatic smile and a strong voice that rode over the top notes of 'The Age of the Cathedrals/Les Temps des Cathedrales', he was a delight to watch, save (again) for the English bits.

16 years old, Aurore Quintard as Fleur de Lys showed potential in her voice, but seemed rather awkward in her acting. Bearing in mind of course that this is her first musical performance, I would say her showing was commendable. With time, training and experience, she will doubtlessly improve.

Of course, the night had its share of weak performances as well. Two in particular stood out. Vincent Pang as Frollo, didn't possess the necessary vocal range to invoke the emotional gravitas of a lusting priest. His voice cracked as well, twice, and without the vocal stamina to sustain him, his volume seemed to decrease with the progress of the show. Next was Sirfan Sulaimi as Phoebus, without doubt the weakest of the show, and might I say as well, the most irritating. With mangled pronunciation, a weak voice and a pronounced inability to act, he tragically reduced the pivotal character of Phoebus to a throwaway sideshow. As a member of the audience, I was unable to fathom why he had gained the affections of two women. And what was with his costume that made him look like a Gestapo officer instead of the shining soldier he was supposed to be?

In other aspects the show fared well. Staging for one was truly innovative considering the constraints of the small stage and the many locations that the scenes were set in. In fact I felt that its simplicity and focus worked better than the vastly more expensive original in conveying the story. The choreography in general was passable, though there were some inspired touches here and there. I especially liked the way the dancers wore gold skin suits and became bells. The dancing was generally competent and there really was nothing to fault. Of the dancers, Cynthia Goh (who was slightly injured) and Cheryl Tan stood out, the former for her technical ability, the latter for her seemingly luminous presence.

On the whole, it was an enjoyable night. As a community project designed to bring people together, it certainly lived up to its purpose. I for one would love to see more projects of this nature being undertaken. And, for a 'Notre Dame de Paris' fan such as myself, it was a treat to be in the presence of those wonderful songs again.