'The Hunchback of Notre Dame': Theater Review

Jerry Dalia
Michael Arden and Ciara Renee in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame'
Far darker in tone than Disney's usual theatrical musicals, this ambitious effort may have trouble finding an audience

Composer Alan Menken, lyricist Stephen Schwartz and playwright Peter Parnell collaborate on this theatrical adaptation of Disney's 1996 animated musical.

It's hard to know what to make of the latest theatrical musicalization of a Disney animated film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, based on Victor Hugo's classic novel. The tale of the tortured hunchback Quasimodo and his unrequited love for a beautiful gypsy woman was originally made into the 1996 film, featuring songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. Its first stage adaptation, directed by James Lapine, was seen in Berlin in 1999. This latest version -— featuring songs from the original score, with several new ones added and a book by playwright Peter Parnell — is a co-production of San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse, where it was presented last year, and New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, where it's currently receiving its East Coast premiere.

For all the obvious effort and careful stagecraft that has gone into this long-gestating project, the show would probably benefit from being shorn of its Disney imprimatur. That's because it features a decidedly darker tone than its animated inspiration. Closer to Les Miserables, another musical adapted from Hugo, than to such Disney hits as Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Aladdin, this Hunchback is both too mature in its themes for younger children and insufficiently weighty to attract discerning adults. While its ambitions are laudable, the execution is muddled.

The show is impressive on many levels, however, including Alexander Dodge's massively looming set, suggestive of Notre Dame Cathedral and featuring giant bells which periodically descend from the rafters. Howell Binkley's gorgeous lighting also provides a suitably religious feel. And Menken's uncommonly complex, classically-influenced score often soars, thanks in no small part to the production's incorporation of a local choir, the 32-member Continuo Arts Symphonic Chorus, to augment the large ensemble.

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Parnell's book relies too heavily on familiar story-theater elements, with the performers often using direct address to describe the plot machinations. But the melodramatic tale is stirringly rendered, with the fast-paced action delivered in a relatively tight two-and-a-half hours.

The story involves the dramatic love quadrangle that develops between Esmerelda (Ciara Renee) and the three men who become obsessed with her: the partially deaf, socially outcast Quasimodo (Michael Arden), who blossoms due to her kindness; Captain Phoebus de Martin (Andrew Samonsky), the handsome, swashbuckling soldier more than a little reminiscent of past Disney characters; and, most crucially, Quasimodo's uncle, Dom Claude Frollo  (Patrick Page), the archdeacon who took Quasimodo in after the death of his beloved wastrel brother Jehan (Jeremy Stolle).

The seemingly pious Frollo has little use for gypsies, considering them criminal heathens. But he develops a romantic fixation for the gorgeous Esmerelda — all it takes is the sight of her performing a sinuously sexy dance number. This ultimately has tragic results, however, echoing Les Miserables' Javert.

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Director Scott Schwartz (Stephen's son) has incorporated several clever meta-theatrical touches, including the handsome Arden's onstage transformation into his grotesque character via the simple donning of a hump and the application of dark smudges on his face. The cathedral's gargoyles, with whom Quasimodo frequently interacts, are portrayed by members of the ensemble wearing dark cloaks. Less effective is his staging of the elaborate climax, which unspectacularly renders Quasimodo's pouring of molten oil on his tormentors via a shimmering cloth.

Arden is terrific in the title role, superbly conveying his character's emotional pain and physical deformities while beautifully singing such emotive numbers as "Out There" and "Heaven's Light."  But the real standout is Page, who has made a specialty of villainous roles in such musicals as The Lion King, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! and Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark, slathered in heavy green makeup in the latter two. Page makes Frollo an intriguingly conflicted character suffused with a genuine complexity, and his powerful baritone voice is wonderfully showcased in such songs as "Sanctuary" and the showstopping "Hellfire." The sultry Renee and the charismatic Samonsky provide solid support.  

But for all its admirable qualities, it's hard to know to whom this show will appeal. Much like its priest character, torn between piety and his carnal desires, it seems to be straddling two disparate worlds.

Cast: Michael Arden, Erik Lieberman, Patrick Page, Ciara Renee, Andrew Samonsky, Julian Decker, Mary Joe Duggan, Ian Patrick Gibb, Beth Kirkpatrick, Samantha Massell, Neal Mayer, Nora Menken, William Michals, Anise Ritchie, Vincent Rodriguez III, Richard Ruiz, Joseph J. Simeone, Jeremy Stolle, Dashaun Young
Music: Alan Menken
Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Book: Peter Parnell, based on the Victor Hugo novel, with songs from the Disney film
Director: Scott Schwartz
Choreographer: Chase Brock
Set designer: Alexander Dodge
Costume designer: Alejo Vietti
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Sound designer: Gareth Owen
Presented by Paper Mill Playhouse, La Jolla Playhouse

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