When Disney Theatricals launched an epic musical version of the 1996 animated film in Berlin in 1999, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the first Disney production to open outside the United States. With additional songs by the original writers Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz and a book and direction by the acclaimed James Lapine, the show broke box-office records and ran for three years. Now the producers have mounted the first U.S. production at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse but with a new book by Peter Parnell and direction by Scott Schwartz.
An amalgam of Victor Hugo's novel, the animated movie, and poetic license, the plot follows three diverse men as one entrancing gypsy girl changes their lives forever. Archdeacon Dom Claude Frollo (Patrick Page), a pious man who uses his power to destroy his opponents, finds himself hobbled by his obsession with the dancer Esmeralda. Frollo's top soldier, Phoebus, a beautiful vain military man, loses his sense of duty to protect her. Quasimodo (Michael Arden), Frollo's deformed nephew, locked away in a bell tower, finds human kindness for the first time from Esmeralda. Because it is 15th-century France, both the female and the hunchback are less than third-class citizens, are at the mercy of the theocracy, and are pawns that will be manipulated and led down a path toward catastrophe.
The musical score and book lack the spectacle and scope of that other Hugo blockbuster, Les Misérables. It's disappointing because the tale itself is so powerful. The score is filled with standard songs yet no true standouts. Menken's melodies are proficient but unmemorable. Schwartz's lyrics are simplistic and feature elementary rhymes. It feels as though the songs are a better fit for the Disney cartoon recipe than an organic outgrowth from the characters and plot. "Out There" acts as the wanting song, "Esmeralda" as the chase song, and "Hellfire" as the villain's anthem. Being formulaic does not make the songs poor, but a story of this caliber deserves haunting melodies that pull the audience into the story. The choral numbers however are stirring, enhanced by the Sacra/Profana professional chorus.
The script is bogged down with too much narration, which strips away a sense of drama. Being told the story instead of shown it removes the audience from the emotion of the tale, leaving a lack of investment in the characters. As a result of this distance, the ending does not earn its tragedy. Instead of having concrete characters for the gargoyles (as they do in the movie), the ensemble acts as voices in Quasimodo's head, seemingly symptomatic of a mentally unstable boy, rather than a representation of his only friends and parental guidance.
The musical numbers lack spectacle. In what should have been the big showstopper, "Topsy Turvy" came off like a chamber piece. Even choreographer Chase Brock cannot elevate the climactic number, which is puzzlingly directed by Schwartz without evoking fear or thrills. The substitution of curtains for hot lava and flames took away sense of horror. The quizzical metaphorical ending, where Michael Arden removes his makeup and the ensemble members distort their bodies into hunchbacks, makes one wonder what the director's intention was beyond a standard clichéd ending.
Despite this, Schwartz has assembled a talented cast of performers who shine in their roles. Arden has a beautiful voice and brings pathos to Quasimodo. His gnarled face and lopsided walk do not overwhelm his performance or turn into acting ticks. Instead he portrays the hero's agony trapped in a body that fails him. Gravel-voiced and drowning in angst, Patrick Page finds nuances that aren't in the script, turning Frollo into a tragic figure. He makes it clear that despite Frollo's repugnant soul, in his sociopathic mind, he has Quasimodo and Paris' best interests at heart. Ciara Renée is ravishing and heartfelt as the bewitching Esmeralda. A lovely singer, she brings dimensions to her songs, including the anthem "God Help the Outcasts." And Erik Liberman is buoyant as the gypsy leader Clopin.
The set by Alexander Dodge is a minimal and very effective simulation of the famed Paris cathedral, with the infamous clanging tower bells as its centerpiece.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a penetrating story, one that has been published and filmed multiple times over the better part of a century. This staged version deserves to be told with a depth and heft of story that the production currently lacks. Let's hope they find it before Hunchback (almost inevitably) swings to Broadway.