The Hunchback of Notre Dame – La Jolla Playhouse

It is likely that everyone goes through at least one Disney phase. It is inescapable that as a kid you would have succumbed to Disney’s pull. When you become a parent, all of that is revisited.

For me, our teenage kids long ago fell away from Disney, so there has not been much Disney in our world.

Nonetheless, the Disney magic was sufficiently evolved at the La Jolla Playhouse to intrigue me and the packed house.

Drawing more from the Victor Hugo novel than the Disney film (itself derived from Hugo’s work), the U.S. premiere musical is darker and richer than the 1996 animated film from the folks in Burbank.

The impressive stage set evokes the forbidding towers of Notre Dame, huge bells suspended from huge wooden beams and girders. The cathedral setting is further evoked by the 32 person chorus along the stage’s back wall, a church choir adding a fullness to the musical numbers. The chorus is manned by the local choral group SACRA / PROFANA.

The story will be familiar to anyone who has seen Beauty and the Beast or Phantom of the Opera: a reject of society is banished from quotidian life until a beautiful woman is a catalyst to discover life beyond the sanctuary.

The music of Alan Menken and the lyrics of Stephen Schwartz have previously combined successfully (Pocahantas and Enchanted); here the pair has expanded on their contributions to the Disney film of the same name.

Director Scott Schwartz (son of Stephen Schwartz) ably gathers the talent onstage and off.

Quasimodo, the title character in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is played with stunning command by Michael Arden. His vocal prowess is superb, whether crouched in deference to his master Dom Claude Frollo, or perched high in the belfry, dangling over the streets of Paris below. Arden’s intonation occasionally evokes John Lithgow, a powerful force on stage as well.

Michael Arden (center) and the cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s U.S. premiere production of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, book by Peter Parnell, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, directed by Scott Schwartz, running Oct 26 – Dec 14 in the Mandell Weiss Theatre; photo by Kevin Berne.

Michael Arden (center) and the cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s U.S. premiere production of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, book by Peter Parnell, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, directed by Scott Schwartz, running Oct 26 – Dec 14 in the Mandell Weiss Theatre; photo by Kevin Berne.

Frollo is played by Patrick Page, a commanding presence as the spiritual leader of the church. His basso profundo voice is riveting.

Unlike all prior tales of this sort, each of the four main characters is shown to have nuance. None is either good or evil. Frollo shows perhaps the most variation. When his ne’er-do-well brother leaves Frollo a baby to raise, the priest cares for Quasimodo in fatherly fashion. But when the grown Quasimodo encounters the ravishing Esmerelda (Ciara Renee), Frollo shows a particularly secular side of his demeanor. The fourth corner of the story is the Captain (Andrew Samonsky), equally smitten with Esmerelda.

Ciara Renée (center) and Patrick Page (right) ; photo by Kevin Berne.

Ciara Renée (center) and Patrick Page (right);  photo by Kevin Berne.

The costumes are marvelous, especially those of the gypsies. They are intricate and colorful, a logical juxtaposition to the stark beauty of the cathedral. But the rose window of Notre Dame is almost as captivating as the real thing.

The gargoyles of the cathedral come to life as Quasimodo’s friends. Although there is even room on stage to evoke the cathedral’s flying buttresses, it is a clever sound mix that reminds the listener of the cavernous space below the bell tower when the action is closer to street level.

San Diego is blessed with access to world class theatre, often before the rest of the world knows about it. There is little doubt that this production of Hunchback will have a long run on Broadway, eventually circling back to San Diego when the road version makes its run a few years hence.

The advice is to see the musical now during its extended run.

http://www.lajollaplayhouse.org


Brad Auerbach has been covering the media, entertainment and technology scene for many years. He has written for Time Out London, Village Voice, LA Weekly and once upon a time won a New York State College Journalism Award.

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