Monday, February 27, 2012

Review: (Vancouver) Hunchback

Hunchback retells 1831 novel with modern flair and fantasy
Not Disney
by Jonas Gifford

Born at Edmonton's Catalyst Theatre, Hunchback retells Victor Hugo's novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, with dark but imaginative staging and an emotive and modern score.

Set in 1482, Hunchback is named after Quasimodo (Ron Pederson), a hunchback adopted in infancy by Claude Frollo (Scott Walters), the Archdeacon of Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris. Frollo and Quasimodo share powerful affections for a beautiful gypsy Esmeralda (Ava Jane Markus). Esmeralda also captures the carnal lust of philanderer and Captain Phoebus de Chateaupers (Andrew Cohen), but tragically succumbs to medieval criminal law after rejecting the jealously obsessive Frollo.

The lyrics and performances of Hunchback shine most in moments of anguish and torment...

Hunchback avoids a Disney-style revision of Hugo's story, and remains largely faithful to the original. Hunchback also devotes obvious attention to Hugo's key themes of romantic obsession and objectification, the Catholic Church's struggle between asceticism and abuse, and medieval cruelty both under and outside of criminal law. The lyrics and performances of Hunchback shine most in moments of anguish and torment, such as Walters' poignant expressions of Frollo's infatuation-driven descent from piety to selfish savagery, and Pederson's and Markus' wrenching portrayals of the physical abuse that their characters endured.

The score has engaging moments and its staging has flair, but theatre-goers familiar with Hugo-based musical productions should not come to Hunchback expecting the big sights and sounds or the grand and memorable melodies of Les Misérables. Instead, in this production, Hunchback's largely static set and often-repetitive (and recorded) score take backstage to strong vocals, both in solo and in chorus, and to a well-timed and visually enticing presentation.

Hunchback's lighting and set effectively evoke dark moods in dark places.

Writer, director, and composer Jonathan Christenson recasts contemporary playwright Pierre Gringoire (Jeremy Bauming) as Hunchback's narrator. However, Christenson relies heavily on narration, both from the narrator and from and the often-narrative lyrics, rather than allowing the audience to experience the story more directly. Esmeralda's death, for example, is obviously a key plot development, so why do we learn of it only from the narrator, without any attempt to act out even part of it?

Hunchback's lighting and set effectively evoke dark moods in dark places. The costumes are imaginative, but busy and sometimes frivolous or downright cartoonish. As such, the costumes often clash with the dark theme and are blatantly incongruous with the story's period and setting. For example, Quasimodo's “hunchback” looks like jagged metal strapped to Pederson's back. Perhaps the costume is intended to resemble an external hunched spine, but Quasimodo looks more like he has a Borg-like robotic appendage on his back than a deformity.

The themes of darkness and imaginative staging also lure Hunchback's cast to cross from a fantasy style to overacting. Also, the task of playing the monstrous Quasimodo is challenging, but often Pederson's spoken voice sounded more like a bad Russian accent than the strained speech of a deformed man, and his singing voice seemed to overlook physical deformity altogether.

Nevertheless, Hunchback is a refreshing and enjoyable modern retelling of a story, now 180 years old but rich in emotion and in insights to human frailty. Hunchback invites its audience to experience Hugo's story with modern almost pop-style music and a visually enticing show. Experienced theatre-goers should expect a daring and imaginative departure from much conventional theatre, but all should expect strong vocals and enticing visuals.

Hunchback came to Vancouver by a partnership with The Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company and The Cultch, and plays at the Vancouver Playhouse until March 10, 2012. Tickets range from $59 to $75, and unlike most Vancouver Playhouse productions, rush tickets for Hunchback are unavailable.

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