Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Klokkeren fra Notre Dame, again

Last weekend, it was finally time to relive the best theatrical performance I have ever seen.

If you haven't read my first review, I recommend you check that out before delving into this – and now, without further ado, let's tackle Fredericia Teater's Danish production of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

I saw the production twice: on Friday and again on Sunday. I was in Copenhagen for the whole weekend, so in theory, I could have seen the show five times. I however reasoned that if the premiere hit me so hard I could only sleep for about two hours the night after, seeing the show without taking a full day's break in between would probably destroy me.

Friday night's performance was like I expected it would be, coming back to the show after the pure magic of the opening night. It's impossible to repeat a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as simple as that. My mood, and the whole audience's mood, felt calmer and quieter than how I remember the October premiere. I didn't want to strangle anyone during the intermission out of sheer excitement (maybe a good thing), but on the other hand, I got to really pay attention to details this time since I didn't feel like foaming at the mouth uncontrollably the whole time.

It was good, obviously way better than the vast majority of theatrical performances I've seen. Still, had I only seen the show again this once, I would be feeling way more melancholic and nostalgic for the opening night right now. It didn't feel as incredible as it did the first time, and though I knew to expect that, it was still a slightly melancholy feeling.

But then something happened when I came back on Sunday night. The energy and mood in the theatre was different, way more electrifying, though it's impossible to point out why.

Maybe it felt more exciting to me personally because I sat right next to the catwalk part of the stage, in the middle of all the action (Frollo's cape touched me not once but twice! I feel blessed... by the dark and creepy flames of hellfire, I guess). Or maybe something else was different? I really cannot tell. All I know is that there was magic in the air again.

Or maybe it's something to do with one's priorities... While Friday night was all about watching the show as a whole and analysing everything, I guess I can admit Sunday night was decidedly all about watching Frollo. Every second he's onstage and pretty much without blinking.

Look at him!

Archdeacon Claude Frollo, Quasimodo's adoptive father and the antagonist of the story, is one of my biggest favourite characters of all times.

He's a scary villain that does many sorts of disturbed things beyond all redemption – and still, still, I cannot help pitying him. All at once, he's far-fetched (he's so distraught about feeling unwanted sexual attraction that he figures he should literally burn the woman in question alive, with all manner of unnecessary dramatics included) and not all that unrealistic at all (an older white man in a position of power with racist and misogynist opinions). He has so many layers, with his relationships to his brother and Quasimodo and obviously Esmeralda, that he's endlessly interesting to think about.

Lucky me that Mads M. Nielsen's portrayal has absolutely everything I want to see in the character.

There's some good old-fashioned fun villain-ing around with a crazy glint in his eyes, just the right amount of chewing the scenery and even a couple of jokes (his ridiculous cape swish before talking to Esmeralda on the cathedral's roof got me both times). At the same time, he's very terrifying, and when it's needed, also very human. So even when he's at his worst, I cannot help feeling sorry for him – how much better it would be for all of them, Frollo included, if he only was capable of viewing both himself and everybody else in less black-and-white terms.

And then there's the voice.

And then there's the Hellfire scene.

Fredericia Teater's take on Frollo's big solo, Hellfire (during which Frollo comes to the conclusion that Esmeralda must either choose him or die) is quite simply the best thing I've ever seen in theatre. Ever. The music, the choir, the choreography, the digital scenography with the whole cathedral in flames... And, obviously, Nielsen's voice and stage presence. Unreal, I tell you.

I could feel this scene (and the second act finale, too) physically, notably raising my heart rate both times. Actually, to be absolutely and completely honest, I spent half of Sunday thinking soon I'll see Hellfire again with and The Hunchback of Notre Dame too as an afterthought.

All gushing aside, this is not to say that I don't love the whole cast. Seeing my favourite character played to such perfection was a special treat for me, but I'm quite certain you'd walk out just as ecstatic no matter who your favourite character is. It's an overused word, sure, but I mean exactly what I say when I say the casting of this musical is perfect.

I had great difficulty saying anything more than perfect perfect perfect after the opening night, and I'm afraid the problem persists – they're just so good, all of them, it somehow feels quite pointless trying to explain that further. Everything is as it should be. But here are some bullet points.

  • One fascinating thing to watch is the relationship in between Frollo and Lars Mølsted's Quasimodo. In the beginning, there's definitely warmth in between them, moreso than they had in the Berlin production. Makes the ending about six times more powerful. Good heavens.
  • Mølsted won a Singer of the Year award for this role, and hot damn, you don't need to wonder why. I think my favourite Quasimodo song was the gentle, hopeful Heaven's Light – the dreaminess and sweet optimism creates the perfect contrast for Hellfire that comes right after.
  • For the summer run, Bjørg Gamst has taken over the role of Esmeralda. She's fantastic. Taking one look at her introductory dance, it's not hard to understand why all the guys are fascinated by her.
  • This portrayal of Esmeralda's character is sweet and strong and above all so full of life. Kinda makes you wish that for one night only, they'd do the Disney movie ending for a change...
  • Christian Lund's Phoebus is, as a friend put it, a good egg. I love his introductory song and the war flashback sequence especially. (He by the way looks a bit like a viking with the long blond hair, which is a bonus.)
  • I had the luck of seeing two charismatic Clopins: principal Diluckshan Jeyaratnam and understudy Mads Æbeløe Nielsen. I mentioned it in my Berlin review already that I'm not really a fan of the musical version of the character, but these two make the most out of the part. Nielsen sported some pretty neat eye makeup in the role.
  • The ensemble! In a show like this, with such a strong focus on choral music and the ensemble playing many different parts from Parisians to the statues of Notre Dame, you cannot overestimate the ensemble's importance – and they're... perfect perfect perfect, really.

I am so lucky to have encountered this production in the first place, and to have been able to see it not once but thrice.

There certainly are some problems in the musical's script (some things that bother me: the portrayal of the Romani characters is on the stereotypical side, the character of Clopin feels off since the musical takes away his function as the movie's sole narrator but doesn't really give him anything else important to do in exchange, the songs In a Place of Miracles and Someday are basically interchangeable). But when the production's this good... The problems are there, and really, I have a much clearer vision of the musical as a whole now than I did right after the premiere. Yet, at the same time, the good parts are so overwhelming that nothing else matters.

All of my three experiences were very different from each other. A part of me wishes I could keep watching the musical again and again until I can remember every single little detail by heart, but that's hardly realistic. So, I'm glad Sunday night's powerful performance will be my last memory of this production.

To be completely honest again, right now, I feel like I don't want to see any theatre ever again anymore. Other shows might be good, of course, but they're not this – and at the moment, no other thing feels nearly as interesting or exciting.

I know this feeling will fade away the next time I actually see some theatre. At the same time, I know this production will always stay in the back of my mind, as an example of how good theatre can be when it's at its very best.

My 11 flames of hellfire out of 10 rating stands.

Photos by Søren Malmose.

P.S. Three Frollo details I liked the most: 1) how he takes the cross off his neck before visiting Esmeralda in the jail 2) how you can kinda keep track of his mental state by checking out if his hair is neat or all messy 3) him breaking down next to Esmeralda's body.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Der Glöckner von Notre Dame

I'm on tour this summer! On tour with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, that is. Last weekend, I saw Stage Entertainment's Berlin production of the Disney musical twice, and next weekend, it's finally time to see the Danish production I love so much again.

Before that, though, here's a review of the Berlin production.

The show

The Hunchback of Notre Dame the musical is based on Victor Hugo's classic novel and the 1996 Disney movie, with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, and book by Peter Parnell.

Most of you probably know the story, but here's a quick recap: the year is 1482 and the city is Paris. The Cathedral of Notre Dame's hunchbacked bellringer Quasimodo, his adoptive father archdeacon Claude Frollo, and handsome soldier Phoebus all fall in love with beautiful Romani girl Esmeralda. The priest Frollo cannot deal with his forbidden feelings and thus sets forth a chain of actions that will change all of their lives (for the worse, and how! It's a complete mess).

An earlier incarnation of the musical, with book by James Lapine, ran in Berlin from 1999 to 2002. After over a decade, the musical was revamped and the new version premiered in California in 2014. The new Berlin production premiered in April 2017 and it's a replica of the American original, directed by Scott Schwartz.

All in all, it's no stereotypical Disney story with animal sidekicks and happy endings. It's dark and heavy and very much in the spirit of Victor Hugo's original novel, and the show feels decidedly old-fashioned. The ensemble narrates the story throughout, and the production relies on rather simple (yet impressive!) sets and costumes. A choir of 24 is prominently featured onstage for the whole show. As they should be: the music, with its many Latin choruses, is some of the most impressive ever written for a musical.

Some of the themes the musical deals with are prejudices and discrimination. That's something that sadly has to be highlighted in today's world, and certainly something that all of us have to pay attention to - I sure know I have work to do with my own prejudices, we all do. With that in mind, I think it should be noted that the musical's book and lyrics refer to the Romani characters with outdated terms that many nowadays consider pejorative. It's in line with Hugo's original writing, sure... but being an 19th century writer, he's hardly any shining example of modern racial sensibility. I've heard there's a foreign dub of the movie (can't remember which language!) that has Frollo using pejorative words and the "good guys" using the neutral terms. I wonder why they didn't do something like that in the musical. The show's heart is in the right place, but the details leave a little to hope for - just something to keep in mind while watching and especially discussing this musical.

No matter what, though, I love this musical. In my ears, the music is perfect. The story is hardly subtle or especially realistic, and that's just why I enjoy it so. It's big in all the best ways and, at best, takes the audience on a journey of larger-than-life emotions and events. Yet it is not too removed from real life, and if you're not careful, it may even make you think... The characters are easy to love (or hate!), but they can be portrayed with a lot of depth, and their relationships and inner motivations are endlessly fascinating to me. Good storytelling, that's what it is.

The premiere of the Danish production of The Hunchback is the best theatrical performance I have ever had the honour of seeing. I cannot forget how that felt, and it obviously affects the way I feel about this production (and any potential future productions of The Hunchback, really). But now, I'll try to forget that for a while and instead, focus on...

The performances

I had the luck of seeing two different Quadimodos: understudy Jonas Hein and principal David Jakobs.

I liked both a lot, but if I have to choose, understudy Hein takes the cake. His portrayal feels a bit younger, a bit more naive and a little sweeter and happier compared to Jakobs's, who in turn seems to have a little darker undercurrent running through his performance. Both sing beautifully and make you feel for the character. Both also absolutely nail the hunchbacked character's unique way of moving. So my opinion's just a matter of personal preference.

Sarah Bowden's Esmeralda is both sweet and tough, with a voice that's enjoyable to listen to. Yet, somehow, she doesn't leave that deep of an impression. She's maybe a bit too much on the sweet and kind side for my tastes, it's just a tiny bit too sugary for me.

Nevertheless, Bowden's Esmeralda is very likeable. A nice performance, but as a whole, not all that memorable.

Felix Martin as Frollo is amusing, largely for the wrong reasons.

To be honest, instead of a conflicted Catholic priest, he seems to be channeling a campy version of Count Dracula, chewing the scenery left and right. A total Disney villain! It's just that the musical's script allows Frollo to be portrayed as something a little deeper than a cartoon bad guy. Martin's portrayal of the character is pretty much straight-up evil, and while that's entertaining to watch, I still long for more shades of gray. Surprisingly enough, though, his obsessive attraction to Esmeralda is not overstated... or especially noticeable, even. Remembering how the rest of the portrayal was like, it feels odd there was no movie-style sniffing of her hair whatsoever!

Luckily, Martin sings the part just right (the musical's whole score culminates in Frollo's solo Hellfire, so it would be a shame if he didn’t). And don't get me wrong - he's fun to watch. It's just that an approach like this gets old fast. Twice is quite enough for me.

Jens Janke's Clopin, the leader of the Romani camp and a showman at the Festival of Fools, doesn't really do much for me. In the beginning, he reminds me of Jekyll & Hyde's Spider - a stereotypical, angry pimp, that is (though, to be fair, I suppose the script and the direction are largely to blame about that). I wish his and Esmeralda's relationship had a bit more warmth to it, since they're after all working together and supposedly on the same side of things.

As a whole, Clopin's "master of ceremonies" persona doesn't feel all that charismatic or enchanting to me, it felt like Janke was aiming for over-the-top but didn’t quite reach it. I did start feeling sympathy for Clopin's "civilian" persona towards the end of my second performance's second act, though. And Janke does have an impressive falsetto!

Maximilian Mann's Phoebus, then, is a real sweetheart. Watching the movie, I never paid much attention to the captain-of-the-guard-turned-rebel. But watching the musical now, it turned out I really like the character, if he's performed like this. Mann is a great fit for the role. His Phoebus is well-rounded and three-dimensional - from a ladies' man to a war veteran, then from a dreamer to an agitator, he feels real all the way through.

Having such a likeable Phoebus makes you notice how the musical's Quasimodo-centric ending leaves the captain's fate in the air. I just want to know if he'll ever be okay again... Thank you, Maximilian Mann, for making me care about Phoebus this deeply!

I also want to give big shoutouts to the ensemble and ORSO - Choral Society Berlin's choir, as well as the orchestra conducted by Bernhard Volk. They all sound fantastic together. I was maybe the most impressed by the choir, I think the choral Entr'acte is now my favourite piece of music in the whole show.

The aftertaste

Overall, somehow, I feel this production is slightly less than the sum of its parts. This should hit me harder, feel more exciting. Many times, I felt oddly disconnected from the story.

Maybe it’s because I sat in the very back of the stalls both times and could hardly see any expressions. Maybe it's that both audiences I was a part of were surprisingly calm and quiet, and that affected the mood of the whole performace. Or maybe it's that the production's a replica and the direction would simply work better with the original cast and an American audience? Whatever the case, having seen the Danish production of the same musical, I know it can feel so much more engaging and exciting. The Berlin production is fine and beautiful, but hardly extraordinary.

Both nights, though, the last ten minutes hit the audience hard. Quasimodo's fate and the final chorus punched me in the gut, and I was not alone: suddenly the formerly quiet audience was on its feet and cheering.

Deep down, there's something very touching, very human about this story. I'd say it was well worth seeing both times.

Photos by Johan Persson © Disney

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Prince of Egypt

You know what? After their earth-shatteringly amazing production of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame the musical (two weeks to go and I'll finally see it again!), I didn't think the Danish Fredericia Teater could raise their own bar any higher.

Little did I know.

In April 2018, they're putting on the world premiere of Dreamworks' The Prince of Egypt the musical.

Diluckshan Jeyaratnam, who's going to play Moses, performing the song When You Believe (in the movie, Moses does not sing this one – but whatever, it's beautiful in any case)

The Prince of Egypt is a 1998 animated movie with music by Stephen Schwartz. It tells the story of Moses, from his childhood as the pharaoh's adopted son all the way to him receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Sounds like heavy stuff, and it is – and at the same time, it's a beautiful movie with a gorgeous musical score.

Perfect stage musical material, that is.

Technically, the Danish production won't be the first time The Prince of Egypt is performed onstage. In the US, there have been readings already (including one that was cancelled, allegedly because the controversy that surrounded its casting – namely that they chose mostly white actors to read a story set in Africa), and in October 2017, previews of the musical will be staged in California. But the official world premiere is going to take place in Denmark.

The full cast and creative team have yet to be announced, but we know the musical is going to be directed by Scott Schwartz (who also consulted Fredericia Teater's production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame – and yes, he's the son of composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz). The leading role of Moses is going to be played by Diluckshan Jeyaratnam, who's currenly playing Clopin in The Hunchback. Interestingly, there are going to be both English and Danish performances of the new musical.

All in all, I am hyped about this.

I was never a big Disney or Dreamworks kid myself. I liked The Sleeping Beauty and The Goofy Movie, and that's about it – and I don't think the latter counts as any huge Disney classic anyway. But after a childhood relatively free of Disney and the likes (no Little Mermaid, no Lion King, no Beauty and the Beast), around the age of 18, I fell in love with two traditionally animated movies. One was Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the other Dreamworks' The Prince of Egypt.

What are the odds musical adaptations of both movies have their European premieres in Denmark less than two years apart from each other, and that I'll get to see both!

Having seen how video screens with a 3D animated cathedral mesh seamlessly with traditional, physical set pieces in Fredericia Teater's Hunchback, having heard flawlessly mixed music surround me, I have especially high hopes for the technical aspect of The Prince of Egypt. The burning bush? The plagues? The crossing of the Red Sea? This will be good.

Not to mention the music and the emotional impact. The Prince of Egypt is a gorgeous movie, and I'm sure it's going to make an equally beautiful musical.

The story of Moses is millenia old. I imagine that thousands of years ago, people shared it with each other by campfire under a vast starry sky, a storyteller painting impressive pictures using words only.

In our modern times, we cannot really go back to that earlier way of telling ageless tales. But an impressive musical spectacle with hundreds of people in the audience feeling for the characters and sharing the experience... It's not the same, but somehow, I have a feeling it has the potential to touch the audience in a rather similar manner.