Review Singapore Theatre

★★★★☆ Review: Quasimodo – A Musical Story by Sing’theatre

Passionate cast breathes life into Victor Hugo’s classic.

Receiving dozens of adaptations since it was first written in 1831, French novelist Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (better known as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) has endured the test of time, and emerged as one of the most recognizable stories surrounding the iconic cathedral and its place in literary canon. Nothing could have prepared the world for the loss of the building in April 2019, when a devastating fire destroyed it, a reminder of how nothing lasts forever.

Still, the memory lives on, and to commemorate the three years since the loss, Sing’theatre pays tribute with Quasimodo: A Musical Story. Adapted from French musical Notre-Dame de Paris, the sung-through musical follows Victor Hugo’s plot, where the hunchbacked Quasimodo, a bell ringer in Notre-Dame, falls in love with gypsy girl Esmeralda. His affections however, are in competition with his own adoptive father – Archdeacon Frollo, and Captain Phoebus. As events unfold, the complex love quadrangle only gets further twisted, and Quasimodo must find it in him to somehow save Esmeralda from these devious men.

Quasimodo is a difficult production to stage, requiring its team to replicate the majesty and glory of the cathedral on a small stage (at Alliance Francaise). Kudos to designer Wong Chee Wai then, for managing to build up a grey, concrete set that towers over the audience, complete with a circular stained glass window, capturing the essence of the Catholic cathedral. Below, sliding doors open to reveal different ‘rooms’, from a prison, to the cathedral’s entrance, while the ensemble’s dynamic, posed silhouettes against red light transform the space from holy sanctuary to den of vice.

Set aside, director Nathalie Ribette has also done well to keep the action constantly moving, and uses her ensemble to their full potential. Alongside choreographer George Chan, the ensemble (Amin Alifin, Ferris Yao, Francesca Harriman) seems to fill the stage during group numbers, and are able to make the limited space feel like a bustling city full of life. Sing’theatre has also employed Elaine Chan as music director, who leads the live band (a welcome return) to performing the backing tracks that resonate throughout the theatre.

Regarding the music, while deeply emotional and lyrical, there are times the songs by Riccardo Cocciante begin to feel repetitive and heavy. Yet, the cast’s infectious energy and sheer dedication alone is enough to keep us invested from start to end. Amidst the cast are veteran performers Hossan Leong and George Chan, as king of the slums Clopin and poet Gringoire respectively; Hossan relies on his comedy chops to bring out the character’s physical comedy, lighting up the stage with his presence each time he appears, while George is in his element, excelling in the dance numbers with smooth choreography that keeps the stage glowing with energy.

Beyond these veterans, Nathalie Ribette also gives opportunities to younger, rising stars to shine, such as Preston Lim (Phoebus) and Gabrielle Rae Sammy (Phoebus’ fiancee, Fleur-de-Lys), who both make their professional debuts in Quasimodo. Preston carries the womanizer role well, utilising his baritone voice alongside a show of pride and ego that paints him as a clear antagonist, while Gabrielle Rae Sammy is able to balance her character’s sweet purity, with a later twinge of acidic jealousy that completely transforms her tone. Gabrielle’s vocals are especially complementary to her fellow cast members whenever engaging in a duet with them, be it with Preston in the romantic ‘So Look No More For Love’, or even alongside Vanessa Kee in ‘Shining Like The Sun’, as they both express their adoration for Phoebus. TJ Taylor also gets a rare chance to come out from his associate artistic director role, and perform as the villainous Frollo, tormented by his duty to God and his own desires for Esmeralda in all its hypocrisy, eventually driven completely mad by lust.

However, the undisputed stars of the show are Joash Zheng (Quasimodo) and Vanessa Kee (Esmeralda). Vanessa Kee is beginning to cement herself as one of Singapore’s up and coming musical theatre stars to watch, with possibly the most musical numbers to perform in the show. Her interpretation of Esmeralda marries sultry sex appeal with an air of naive hope, a full gauntlet of emotions displayed across vocally challenging songs and precise choreography. Opposite her, Joash Zheng is a revelation, as his unexpected, Sinatra-like vocals soar above his false hunchback, capturing both Quasimodo’s physicality and aching with a lifetime of pain and abuse in his portrayal. There is raw talent here that has potential to be further shaped into something truly special if he keeps this up. Together, their voices create an interesting complement, with numbers like ‘The Birds They Put In Cages’, and as different as they look physically, their chemistry brings out their mutual suffering, at the hands of the townspeople’s prejudice against them.

Like a stained glass window, there is a spectrum of colour that Quasimodo brings to the stage, and Sing’theatre, the light that reveals it. Wrought with passion and fully harnessing the talents of its creative team, Quasimodo is a worthy tribute to Notre-Dame cathedral and an impressive adaptation that opens the door to French culture, celebrates our local performing artists, and a welcome return to full houses at musical theatre performances.

Photo Credit: Sing’theatre

Quasimodo: A Musical Story played from 15th to 24th April 2022 at Alliance Francaise.

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