Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame - The Musical

At Fredericia Theatre, Denmark

*SPOILER ALERT: Considering the fact that this review is mostly written for people who might not get to see the musical (though you really should!) the review might feature spoilers. Are you going to watch it, I will recommend you not to read it until you have seen it*

It was with an excitement built up over almost a year since receiving the tickets last Christmas that I sat down in Fredericia Theatre Thursday evening to watch their new production of Disney’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame - The Musical’. It is currently beating the unofficial Danish record of most 6-star reviews (20+ and counting) and with tickets selling out quicker than Clopin can escape a dangerous situation, it is clear that the provincial theatre has hit the nail on its head with their production. The question is, then, whether this success is deserved and understandable? The short answer is: it deserves even more success! It is one of the most (if not THE most) impressive musical productions I have witnessed in Denmark as well as abroad. So let me continue with the long answer…

Ringing the bells of Notre Dame, Lars Mølsted. Photo: Malmose.com / FredericiaTeater.dk

The musical version of Disney’s take on Victor Hugo’s classic novel ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’ - later known as ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ - saw its first premiere in Berlin in 1999 with limited success that was never followed by an English spoken production. However, in 2014 this new production premiered in San Diego (and in New Jersey in 2015) based on a rewritten manuscript by Peter Parnell. Common for both musical versions is that they are based more on the original novel and only features the beloved music from the Disney animated classic securing a darker, more gothic tone that is a perfect fit for musical theatre.

Big Disney musical productions are in no way new ground for Fredericia Theatre whose revival of ‘Aladdin - The Musical’ in 2012 was an instant hit prior to the recent successful Broadway and West End productions and in 2014 they once again hit a home run with their new take on the Broadway miss hit ‘The Little Mermaid - The Musical’. Now with their third Disney production in four years, they have once again taken the American script and turned it into their own, unique version of this classic tale of love, empathy, faith, suppression and tolerance. Classic Disney characters like the three gargoyles have been replaced by more static, less comedic, but deeper characters eerily reminding us of Quasimodo’s inner battle. Esmeralda’s hard-hitting goat sidekick, Djali, has also not made the cut for the stage musical, which - as with the changed gargoyles - just helps creating a more coherent, darker style.

Quasimodo (Lars Mølsted) with all his stone friends. Photo: Malmose.com / FredericiaTeater.dk

In the lead as Quasimodo, Fredericia Theatre local Lars Mølsted embodies all the feelings that the hunchbacked bellringer carries with him whether it’d be childlike curiosity, deepfelt love and compassion or oppressed obedience towards Arch Deacon Claude Frollo. We are laughing and crying with Mølsted who never falls into the dangerous pit of over-acting, which can seem obvious for the part. From the first moment when Mølsted physically transorms into Quasimodo right there on stage simply by using his body and very few costume props, he simply IS our main character. Whenever Frollo is on stage he is as crippled as can be with heavily bent back and hoarse voice, but as soon as Quasimodo is all alone in his bell tower, Mølsted releases the most tender voice that is sure to leave your hairs raised and eyes teary to the heavenly beautiful songs Out There and Heaven’s Light.

While Mølsted deservedly got the biggest applause of the night (with earth shaking, stampede-like stamping of the feet included), Mads M. Nielsen was just as impressive as the Arch Deacon of Notre Dame and Quasimodo’s guardian, Claude Frollo. His portrayal is by lengths the most complex of the production being out-and-out evil in one scene only to be crippled and burdened by his growing sinful thoughts and emotions held down by his strong belief in the next. His voice, his looks and his presence makes him as terrifying as Claude Frollo should be and a memorable villain culminating near the end of first act in the best version of Hellfire I have ever heard. Set design, acting, music and Nielsen’s beautiful voice joint in a complete, evil symbiosis leaving the floor shaking and the audience gobsmacked. THE best scene I have witnessed in any musical production.

Arch Deacon Claude Frollo, Mads M. Nielsen. Photo: Malmose.com / FredericiaTeater.dk

The remaining trio of leading parts - Captain Phoebus, Esmeralda and Clopin - certainly does not let Mølsted and Nielsen stand out alone. London-based Christian Lund is the close to perfect Phoebus with the over-the-top hauteur and self-assurance that is quickly threatened by his strong feelings towards Esmeralda. Yet, thanks to a unique-to-the-musical song Rest and Recreation the character of Phoebus is also given a darker side of suppressed, traumatic memories from the battlefront. As Esmeralda, Chilean-Swedish Vanessa Rodríguez Ibarra brings all the sensual and empathic energy needed for the role and while her distinctive accent demands you to listen carefully, it brings so much authenticity to the character that she not only charms Quasimodo, Frollo and Phoebus but the entire audience. Finally, Diluckshan Jeyaratnam (who has not even graduated from the Fredericia musical academy yet) brings a market place of energy to the role of Clopin. Mischievous, funny, satirical and incontrovertibly musical in every scene he is a joy to behold as the recurrent narrating character (although the role of narrator is given to ALL characters here in the stage production).

While the five mentioned above make up the obvious leading quintet, it is only thanks to an extremely competent ensemble that the production reach the sky high notes that it does. Not one voice “feels off” or below the others in quality. Everything from delicate backing voices to the powerful choir parts of Bells of Notre Dame filled my soul with musical joy thanks to the for most theatres enviable ensemble!

Clopin (Diluckshan Jeyaratnam) in one of his many disguises - it’s a topsy turvy day! Photo: Malmose.com / FredericiaTeater.dk

The hidden star of the production and the reason it hits the highest score for so many Danish critics (and me) is the set design by recently graduated Benjamin La Cour. Fredericia Theatre’s main stage room is certainly not the biggest and neither is the stage, so how do you create the illusion of being within the majestic Notre Dame? To answer this question, La Cour uses several techniques that have been used earlier, but never have I seen it applied as succesful as here. The combination of huge LED screens and physical sets reaching into the first 10 rows of the audience, works extremely well thanks to clever set design surrounding the screens and some high quality animation on the screens.
Actually, some of the audience is placed on stage in two, moveable church benches making them an active and integral part of the set design. One scene they simply sit in the outskirts of the market place only to be moved to the centre of stage “playing the part” as the parish in the next scene. In Fredericia Theatre’s production of ‘The Little Mermaid’ they also used screens, but where it felt very flat in that instance, it creates a previously unseen depth that successfully transforms the small theatre into the majestic cathedral. When you “fly” from the ground floor of Notre Dame to Quasimodo’s bell tower or back, it feels as overwhelming and thrilling as anything I have experienced in a theatre. (WDI should look at this for a future Hunchback dark ride ;-))

God Help the Outcasts, Vanessa Rodríguez Ibarra. Photo: Malmose.com / FredericiaTeater.dk

Finally, the music has to be mentioned. While already one of the most beautiful, most overwhelming and most touching scores of any Disney film, it feels a thousand times more emotionally overpowering here. Perhaps thanks to the brand new (and amazing) sound system of Fredericia Theatre, perhaps because of a fantastic live orchestra who was deservedly brought on stage afterwards for a roaring applause. The new songs from Menken and Schwartz fit the story perfectly and not one of them feels like it could have been left out. Especially, Top of the World, Esmeralda and Made of Stone are right up there with the classics of the original score.

Out There, Lars Mølsted. Photo: Malmose.com / FredericiaTeater.dk

All in all, as you can probably guess from this novel-long review, I am beyond impressed by this production. Not only is it the best musical production, I have witnessed in Denmark, it is also right up there with all the productions I have seen abroad as well (and YES, that includes The Lion King). If anyone observing the performance Thursday evening should have been in doubt about this, the immediate standing and deafening applause that erupted in immediate continuation of the last note of the beautiful finale would have been more than suitable proof. My only complaint is that it truly was as warm as in a hellfire in the theatre ;-)

From the first note to the last, my eyes were as clear as the voices of the actors and at several times a tear (or 20?) fell from the hooks of my eyes. Rodríguez Ibarras vulnerable version of God Help the Outcasts hits right into a world that sometimes seems as cruel and narrow-minded today as it was in the world portrayed by Hugo both here and in ‘Les Misérables’, Frollo’s disturbing Hellfire places you right in the middle of an immense, visual hellfire and the tragic, touching and tender finale will make even the most stone-hearted person teary-eyed.

Quasimodo (Lars Mølsted) and Esmeralda (Vanessa Rodríguez Ibarra) sitting on top of the world. Photo: Malmose.com / FredericiaTeater.dk

‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame - The Musical’ is the emotionally, visually and whole-heartedly overwhelming success that Fredericia Theatre has been heading towards in recent years. It is as relevant as it is beautiful and the director, Thomas Agerholm, is never afraid to show us just how disturbingly relevant it is today or to break the unspoken rules as when he allows Lars Mølsted to break character and remove the costume in the very end to tell the touching and perfect fate of Quasimodo. The musical will play in Fredericia until early December 2016 before returning for a one-month run in Copenhagen in the summer of 2017. This production is SO good that I will recommend to travel a long way to go see it. Travel here and give Fredericia Theatre the success they thoroughly deserve for this sheer masterpiece.