Pumping up the sound of silents
It is a testament to the enduring power of Lon Chaney's poignant performance as Quasimodo in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" that,despite eight singer-dancers, a versatile four-piece band, and flashy 21st century technology surrounding his silent celluloid self, he remains unequivocally the star of Vox Lumiere's show.
To its credit, the Los Angeles-based company - which specializes in modern multimedia treatments of silent film classics such as "Metropolis" and "The Phantom of the Opera" to the stage - doesn't try to upstage Chaney, but rather seeks to amplify (quite literally) his performance. Although Vox Lumiere's ambitious attempt to recast the 1923 film adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel as a rock musical didn't succeed on all the levels it reached for at the Cutler Majestic Theatre Wednesday night, the experiment made for a novel, if occasionally awkwardly ill-fitting, performance.
Composer/producer Kevin Saunders Hayes, the man behind Vox Lumiere, wrote songs designed to reflect what transpires on the screen towering over the stage: namely, the tortured tale of Quasimodo, a tragically deformed and publicly reviled bell-ringer in 15th century Paris who falls for a beautiful and much desired gypsy named Esmeralda.
After all these years, even in flickering black and white, the silent images of Chaney's hunchbacked outcast unjustly punished and flogged in the city square - and Esmeralda's act of kindness - remain achingly affecting.
The four-piece band, comprising guitarists Jeff Miley and Christian Nesmith (yes, ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith's son), bassist Zac Matthews, and drummer Joel Alpers, remained in the background, delivering technically proficient accompaniment that ran the gamut from '80s-style heavy metal to medieval hymns.
Despite such range, however, the problem was that those rock power ballads and operatic, Queen-size theatrics just didn't feel like the right fit for either the bittersweet mood, or ancient look, of the movie. The dancers, clad in metal and glam-Goth garb and dressed mostly in blacks and reds with silver glitter accents, were in uniformly strong voice (the single-monikered Lawson as the "Voice of Clopin - The Miracle Man," in particular, possessed a confident yet relaxed presence; Victoria Levy, as the voice of Esmeralda, was also a standout).
But the choreography - which resembled a series of Bob Fosse-meets-Madonna bump-and-grinds, plus a sequence or two that recalled "Thriller"-era Michael Jackson videos - seemed at distracting odds with the story and, with few exceptions, failed to adequately convey the anguish, anger, and pathos of the main character on screen.
Perhaps the sleekly modern bent of Vox Lumiere's production has worked more effectively in adaptations of futuristic tales such as "Metropolis." In this context, however, those big numbers felt a bit out of time and place. Ultimately, Chaney - the so-called "Man of a Thousand Faces" - didn't benefit from such a garish makeover.