Back in the day when it was just the Esplanade plus a few smaller theatres (like DBS, Kallang Theater, etc.), my husband and I – both performing art lovers – watched just about every major show. Shakespeare play. Harry Connick Jr. Phantom of the Opera. Cats. Rock of Ages. Stomp. Chicago. Then came the theatres at Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World, which more than tripled the number of performances we could watch. At first, I thought this was great! A bit of competition between venues will motivate them to bring in better performances, right?
No. What I have seen instead is that these theatres probably settle on rather mediocre plays to keep their venues operational year round. Notre Dame de Paris, which we just watched last week, was probably a good example of this.
Now … Notre Dame de Paris, the story of Quasimodo and Esmeralda, was a headliner when it first started. It was the best-selling musical play of all time in its first year of performance. So we thought it can’t be bad. And to be brutally honest, it wasn’t bad. We still enjoyed it.
However, my husband and I are lyrical listeners. We want the songs to tell a story instead of being a compilation of songs concert-style. We enjoy strong, good plot and script. Worse, we are seasoned watchers of Broadway and West End musicals. And to us, Notre Dame de Paris lacks a few major items:
Live orchestra / band. The music was pre-recorded (probably the background vocals too!) and it lacks dynamic. In parts the music overpowered the vocals and my husband and I were left whispering to each other, “Whaaat? What was that about???”
A strong story and script. We did not read the play synopsis but kinda know the story of Quasimodo from the book. We thought we’ll figure out the rest from the song lyrics and dialogs. But alas … we couldn’t comprehend half the lyrics (other than the super repetitive “Torn Apaaaaaarrtttt ….”), let alone figure out the story! And it was confusing at certain points. The scene of street protest looked more like a bunch of teenagers break dancing. We did not figure out that Frollo the priest was lusting over Esmeralda, thanks to the super loud background music plus the nondescript lyric. Phoebus, the keeper of public order, looked out of place dressed in white tunic top and glittery silver trousers that makes him look like a runway model. All the refugees looked like slum people yet Esmeralda, one of them, looked ravishing in emerald green dress. I understand they need to differentiate Esmeralda as the main character. But really, making her look like a rich princess in the midst of hobos?
Distracting choreography. The dancers were brilliant. The acrobatic choreography was something I have not seen before. For someone who is not a seasoned musical play audience, Notre Dame de Paris is definitely entertaining and out-of-this world wonderful. But to us, there were just TOO MUCH going on on the stage at any given moment. There would be 3-4 dancers climbing the wall of Notre Dame while the priest walking up and down the staircase of the monastery with a leading character singing a solo and 3 more dancers showing off their acrobatic skills. What do you focus on? Obviously the action, not the lyrics. The dancers appeared spasmic, almost epileptic, in many scenes. What was that about???? Then you lost sight of the story and wondered. To us, the best scene in the whole play was the Quasimodo solo when he confessed his love for Esmeralda yet knew that she won’t love him back. No choreography. Just Quasimodo with the follow spot on him, with Esmeralda sleeping a few meters behind. It was heartfelt, heart-breaking, emotional. Something that was missing in the whole first half.
Having three major shortcomings, I can’t fault the singers or the dancers. They’ve done their best bringing out a mediocre script, out-of-context choreography and less-than-stellar translated lyrics into something that is entertaining. Worth watching? Yes if you have not watched Phantom, Les Mis, Chicago, West Side Story and the like. If you have, you may still enjoy it for its art direction (the set is WONDERFUL!), lighting and almost Cirque du Soleil choreography. But don’t go because you want the story of Quasimodo brilliantly told in a musical. Because Les Mis it ain’t.