- OnStage Connecticut Critic
Each time a Disney movie became a new stage musical I’d ask myself the same question: why not “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame?” Sure, it’s darker than most Disney fare that has made the leap off the silver screen (xenophobia, forbidden sexual lust and a deformed, half-deaf leading man aren’t their most common tropes) but it has one of the most beautiful, fully formed scores in the Disney cannon and a tremendously moving and timeless story. So I was pleased and a bit apprehensive when, in 2014, it was announced that a stage version of the animated film would premiere in California with new music by original “Hunchback” composers Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz and a book by Peter Parnell based on the Victor Hugo novel, which later made it to the Paper Mill Playhouse the following year.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make either production and, with no announced Broadway bow on the horizon, I thought my chance of seeing “Hunchback” on stage any time soon was slim. A gorgeous studio cast album only wet my whistle even further. But then the stars aligned and the regional Northeast premiere of the musical happened to be at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine at the exact same time I was vacationing about 45 minutes away.
While there are some tweaks that could be made before it goes to Broadway, “Hunchback’s” theatrical transition is perhaps the best Disney adaptation I’ve seen since “The Lion King” in that it sticks to the feel and story of the original film while expanding and tailoring it beautifully for the stage. This is not a theme park reenactment of the film. The show starts with a brief backstory for our villainous Archdeacon Frollo that does a wonderful job of giving motivation for his complicated relationships with the gypsies and his ward, the titular bell ringer. After that, the story stays fairly close to the original. Sheltered and deformed Quasimodo longs to see the world outside his Notre Dame home and to learn more than the Bible stories Frollo feeds him. He eventually escapes and meets the kindly and alluring gypsy Esmeralda, whose exotic dancing also attracts the attention of pretentious Captain Phoebus and Claude Frollo, whose illicit yearning for her has deadly consequences.
As dark as the film was (it features “Hellfire,” perhaps the darkest of all Disney numbers and the most lecherous song since Judge Turpin’s “Johanna”), the stage version is even more serious and mature. Gone are the wisecracking gargoyles, their companionship for Quasi replaced by a Greek chorus of stone figures and facades who inhabit his living quarters and act as his inner thoughts personified. There are real stakes here too. Some really fun numbers aside, this is a story with a genuine threat of death and destruction.
At Ogunquit, the lush, emotional score and poignant story were multiplied tenfold by a handsome and well-directed production. Adam Koch’s grand set, which was made up of moving wooden beams, ladders, staircases and, of course, giant church bells, proved a fitting playing space – elaborate enough to suggest the ornate cathedral but simple enough so that the spectacle didn’t overtake the story. Also adding to the ambiance was Richard Latta’s sun-dappled lighting. In many ways, the most inspired moments in director Shaun Kerrison’s staging were the one’s least reliant on high-tech stagecraft, like his use of rope in creating city streets and a jail cell. Another great decision from Kerrison was including a large, omnipresent church choir who sat perched above the stage, resulting in a lush soundscape and an air of otherworldly judgment. Only Connor Gallagher’s choreographer, which often felt uninspired and, in the case of the gypsies, copied from the villagers of Anetekva, failed to meet the standard of the other production elements.
As Quasimodo, F. Michael Haynie gave a winsome and compassionate performance, even if his voice was stretched thin on the higher notes. Thankfully, the show doesn’t bury him with prosthetics and Quasimodo’s deformities are largely demonstrated through costuming and Haynie’s physicality. Unlike the film’s protagonist, the stage hunchback is also half-deaf and speaks with the vocabulary and intellect of a small child, which gives another dimension to the plot. Sydney Morton’s gorgeous voice and feisty take on Esmeralda was wonderful, especially alongside strong tenor Christopher Johnstone’s Phoebus. As Clopin, the head of the gypsies and lead narrator, Paolo Montalban (most known to me as the prince in the late ‘90s multicultural “Cinderella”) was charming, if not a bit stilted. The most interesting and complex performance, however, was Bradley Dean’s as Claude Frollo. Departing a bit from the icy, stoic, gravel-voiced style I associate with the character, Dean’s Frollo was vengeful and corrupt but also distinctly, woefully human. He tripped over his words and showed real moments of warmth towards Quasimodo. By playing him as a very flawed, tortured soul at war with his own childhood indoctrination, Dean’s fascinating character study proved the very crux of the show.
Since the Ogunquit Playhouse is a very well respected and well funded old school summer stock theater (all the lead performers had Broadway resumes and the show had Broadway-level production values), it has been said that their “Hunchback” may help propel the show to New York City. I hope that’s true. It could probably use one last pass of revisions – some expository lyrics feel clunky and the romance between Phoebus and Esmeralda is thin and underwritten, an issue not helped by the fact that their schmaltzy love duet is the show’s weakest number – but its strong points more than outweigh a few clumsy moments.
“Hunchback” is a musical with a disabled protagonist, a show that doesn’t revolve around Guy Meets Girl (at least in the typical way), a work that extols the power of platonic love rather than superficial infatuation, one that doesn’t rest on an ex-machina happy ending and a piece about the dangers of blind faith, misguided parenting and the true, complex meaning of “hero” and “villain.” In the first scene, Frollo’s sermon on the “gypsy vermin” who have “infested the city” doesn’t sound all that different from stump speeches given by a certain orange-hued presidential candidate. Sure, this is a Disney show with a great score and some dazzling effects that will delight both families and seasoned theatergoers. But unlike a few of Disney’s recent cash cow theatrical endeavors, this one is a surprisingly relevant, maturely rendered and needed piece of art.
“Hunchback Of Notre Dame” ran July 13-August 6 at Ogunquit Playhouse in Ogunquit, Maine. For more information, visit OgunquitPlayhouse.org