Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

We were privileged to attend the showing of Vox Lumiere's Hunchback of Notre Dame last night at the Cutler Majestic Theater, where the cantilevered balconies are held up by plaster angels. It's a busy show with a lot to pay attention to. This is an attempt to make a silent movie more palatable to a modern audience by adding rock music, live synchronized dancing, interpretive lyrics and parenthetical video displays to the iconic 1923 silent film of the same name starring Lon Chaney. When this show is good, it is very good. When it's not very good you can always watch the movie, which never disappoints. It is considered a classic for a reason.

A caveat: I am a silent film buff. Not a fanatic, but I do seek them out and enjoy them as they were intended. I recently saw DJ Spooky's "Rebirth of a Nation," which attempts much of what Vox Lumiere is trying to do, at the Beehive, but without the live stagecraft. I enjoyed both attempts at trying to make the silent medium attractive to a modern audience. Both attempts had their pros and cons. The pro at the Beehive was dinner and drinks. The con at the Cutler Majestic was a lot happening at the same time.

Toward the end of Act One of Vox Lumiere's show, the kineticism of the dancers and singers subsides a bit and they and the band act more as a soundtrack foil to what is happening on screen. The intent of the show starts to gel around the Court of Miracles depicted in the film: the intent of all these electric guitar riffs is to bring people to appreciate what was crafted in 1923.

Before Act Two begins there an entr' acte performance during which the crew performs without the distraction of the movie playing behind them. This was rousing and cemented the idea that there are layers going on in this show that both have to do with the film and don't. Had there been a similar introduction, the audience would have been better prepared. There was a bit of debate during intermission about what exactly the audience was supposed to be taking away from this spectacle.

Act Two brings everything together in a unique way that shouldn't be missed. Whether the live performance is needed or not as a complement to the film is an open question. The film isn't considered a classic without reasons. It is full of iconic scenes that are more than just wallpaper for music video dance moves. Quasimodo clambering or rappelling down the facade of Notre Dame cathedral, his public whipping, his riding the bells for the sheer joy of it, his bittersweet death, are all worth the price of admission. The star of this show, 80-something years after its filming, is still Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces. He is peerless.

I didn't run into anyone disappointed afterwards. If you've never been tempted to see a silent movie this a good introduction. If you want to show a date a good time you will find it here. You'll certainly have enough to talk about afterwards. The show runs until March 29. You can see a short video and purchase tickets here.

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