Have you ever seen an arena show in an intimate theatre? It puts you on sensory overload - the music is too loud, the lights are blindingly bright, and there is certainly no subtlety in the performances. At the same time, the sort of raw emotional power that would be playing to the back row of the second balcony (if there were one) is hitting you full-force for an intense experience not soon forgotten.
Currently dishing out that experience in the under-300 seat Coronet Theatre is Vox Lumiere's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The brainchild of composer Kevin Saunders Hayes, Vox Lumiere is a company which accompanies classic silent movies with original rock songs and scores, performed live. The idea of playing music to accompany a silent film is a natural one; making it modern rock music to appeal to a new generation of theatregoers is also logical. But what Vox Lumiere really brings to the party is a company of eight singers, who reflect the onscreen action and explode into song, bringing the characters past the silencing limitations of eighty-year-old filmmaking technology.
When it works, it is powerful stuff. In the 1923 silent movie projected on a central screen, Lon Chaney's Quasimodo stares down from the heights of the cathedral to the masses below. A nearby smaller movie screen projects simply a picture of the cathedral. Actor Greg Whipple crouches on a scaffold in front of this screen, momentarily mirroring Chaney. But while Chaney can only tell us what Quasimodo is thinking via his considerable physical talents (and title cards), Whipple breaks into "King of Darkness," a hard-driving power rock number expressing Quasimodo's feelings of alienation. The juxtaposition is perfect, with Whipple's gravelly tenor shouting out the emotions that Chaney's Quasimodo keeps bottled inside.
Also brilliantly matching and magnifying the film is the song for Esmeralda's mother. During a flashback, the movie shows her caring for her infant right before the child is kidnapped by gypsies. The sequence is paired with a woman standing downstage, hooded in a red cloak - one of the few times the black-clad cast allows color into the proceedings - and the vocal is a ballad of uncompromising pain and loss. When one thinks of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the character of Esmeralda's mother does not usually leap to mind as one of the most memorable, but in Vox Lumiere's production, the image of the mourning woman driven insane by the loss of her baby is one of the most stirring moments.
The show's "arena" mentality keeps the lyrics from reaching any level of complexity. The songs paint in broad strokes of a single thought or emotion, such as the "loud crowd" song, the "possessive lover" song, and the "unworthy lover" song. This allows for a certain amount of song recycling to make explicit some themes that are only hinted at in the film. Thus, the same song that Esmeralda sang when she thought herself unworthy of Phoebus's attentions is later repeated by Quasimodo with respect to Esmeralda herself. There might be a little too much reuse of musical themes. "Just One Day," the song sung by the masses at the Festival of Fools, is resurrected numerous times, most incongruously at the end of the film when the people attack the cathedral. "Just One Day" also has an irritating vocal in which one singer (presumably Michelle Franklin, credited as "The Diva") accompanies the vaguely Indian-sounding music with some high-pitched ululation, which is impressive the first time around, but becomes wearing with each repetition.
There is a long stretch of the show in which there are no songs; the film is accompanied only by Hayes' score, and it is very clear that he has a great talent for matching music to images. Vox Lumiere gets out of hand when it allows the onstage happenings to overwhelm the film or the audience. An "unplugged" edition of Vox Lumiere might enable Hayes and company to investigate and interpret more intricacies of the movie, as well as allowing the audience to really hear Hayes' music and lyrics, which frequently disappear in a mess of amplification.
Vox Lumiere's The Hunchback of Notre Dame plays at the Coronet Theatre in West Hollywood, Thursday through Sunday, through May 18, 2003. For tickets ($35) call the Coronet at (310) 657-7377 or Ticketmaster. www.voxlumiere.com.
Vox Lumiere's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Music and Lyrics by Kevin Saunders Hayes. Hair & Make-up Design and Costume Coordination by Paul Hadobas; Lighting Design by Bryan Barancik & Andrew Wilder, Luxious Lighting; Advertising Eleanor Albano; Publicity Patty Onagan, Patty Onagan Entertainment; Media by Nancy Pank, Nancy's Media Buys; Stage Manager Paul Hadobas; Sound Engineer Dan Knutson; Photography Larsen & Talbert; Executive Producer Kevin Saunders Hayes; Producer Victoria Levy; Associate Producer Michael George; Production Concept and Design Kevin Saunders Hayes & Gabriel Previtera; Choreography by Lala Ghahreman; Directed by Gabriel Previtera.
Vocalists: Brian Brigham, Michelle Franklin, Anne Fraser, Suzi Carr George, Victoria Levy, Gabriel Previtera, Bryce Ryness, Greg Whipple.
Band: Joel Alpers, Derek Frank, Nicolas Gruter, Dan Lutz; Zac Matthews, Jeff Miley, Eric Wells.