Michael L. Quintos
- Los Angeles Critic
Still devastatingly beautiful in both music and design, the revamped stage musical adaptation of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME—now in the midst of its Los Angeles premiere performances at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through October 9—is a remarkably ambitious theatrical hybrid of Victor Hugo's original classic 1831 novel and the much-lighter 1996 Disney animated musical reimagining.
While it's certainly quite a challenging dilemma to reinstate Hugo's much darker source material alongside the fluffier tone of a Disney movie musical (albeit still quite dark by the studio's animated standards), this complex labor-of-love stage experiment is more or less a very successful stage incarnation, particularly in this brand new revamped production that premiered last month at Sacramento Music Circus under the direction of Glenn Casale and has now landed in Southern California.
Quite handily, this excellent new production significantly improves upon the original US production that I caught two years ago at the La Jolla Playhouse (which was also remounted at the Paper Mill Playhouse in the Spring of 2015).
Much like most of the characters in the show—all struggling with two conflicting emotions internally—this production of HUNCHBACK involves its own tug-of-war of duality. Still fighting for dominance on one end are the lush, gorgeous songs that were first introduced a decade ago in the Disney film by two titans of musical theater: composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz (as expected, the pair reunited to write additional songs for the stage version). On the other end is an uneven book by Peter Parnell that tries its best to recreate Hugo's pessimistic world while also populating it with ghosts of Disney-fied characters and the songs they sang.
The resulting show, quite frankly, still somewhat feels like a work-in-progress (at least narrative-wise), but its myriad of pleasurable ingredients are mostly solid, which perhaps explains why the show keeps getting a warranted revisit. Yes, sure, the stage version does indeed embrace a darker, more adult tone, but it seems to do so at an almost too-careful, rather measured approach.
To put it simply, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME has the obvious potential to be not just a good stage musical but a really great one... and this new production—resplendent with grandiose theatricality and plenty of old-school musical opulence—is the closest yet to achieving that.
From Dana Solimando's gypsy-mod choreography to Stephen Gifford's clever scenic design (the bells themselves are magnificent), as well as Marcy Froelich's texturized costumes, Jared A. Sayeg's lighting design, Josh Bessom's enveloping sound, and Leah J. Loukas' make-up, hair and wig work, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME basks in a visual and aural richness akin to big-budget Broadway productions.
Better still—as in every incarnation of this new production thus far—the show also generously incorporates a 32-member ad-hoc backing chorus hovering above in loft areas on either side of the set. Their bombastic vocal bursts, combined with the ensemble cast and a full-bodied orchestra under the baton of musical director Dennis Castellano, all produce a huge, cathedral-like wall of sound. It's quite thrilling to hear them all come together, actually.
Story-wise, this new production is less jumbled than the original staging, yet because of that, certain scenes (and some characters) reveal themselves to be underdeveloped or a bit superfluous.
Right as the musical begins, a newly expanded opening prologue is both smartly informative yet, curiously, is also somewhat of an unnecessarily prolonged scene of exposition. Deviating from the Disney-fied storyline (and aligning closer to Hugo's novel), this HUNCHBACK begins with the introduction of two orphaned brothers: Claude Frollo (Mark Jacoby) and Jehan Frollo (Shannon Stoeke). Both become wards of the church, but each take on different paths. Sinful, hedonistic Jehan is soon banished from Notre Dame after being caught cavorting with a gypsy woman—at which time, for a brief but very telling moment, also triggers a suppressed lust for sexually expressive women within Claude that he will struggle with for many more times to come (cue foreshadowing).
Many years pass and the more devout Claude ascends the ranks to become the Archdeacon of Notre Dame. After receiving a desperate plea from his ailing long-lost brother Jehan, Claude rushes to his side just in time before his passing. Before dying, Jehan asks his judgmental brother to look after his baby boy (Jehan's wife had already died from the same sickness). Of course, Claude discovers that the young baby is hideously deformed, rushing to the conclusion that the cursed child is a product of his parents' unholy lifestyle and, therefore, must be disposed of immediately.
But with a major holy heavenly guilt-trip working its persuasive powers on Claude, he agrees to spare the life of his nephew, and, instead, gives him a disparaging name and confines him to live a life in total isolation in the bell tower of Notre Dame.
And that's when we finally meet the adult Quasimodo—which brings up a very pointed question: "What makes a monster, and what makes a man?"
In all honesty, the show on the whole becomes a truly stunning piece of theater primarily due to the excellent, committed performances of its stellar cast—led by deaf actor John McGinty who brilliantly and emotionally transforms himself into the story's endearing (and oft misunderstood) title character.
In perhaps this new production's most brilliant move, the musical re-instates the character's deafness from the novel (a result, perhaps, of Quasimodo's life spent confined up in the bell tower), adding an additional layer of disheartening disconnect between this tragic character and all that he comes into contact. For the most part, McGinty uses both speech and the innate beauty of American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate his character's feelings, and, in turn, his imaginary friends—a bunch of stone statues—are the only ones that communicate back in ASL (as well as in song).
For the purposes of his own (rocky) sanity—and for the pleasure of the hearing audience—Quasimodo's speaking/singing voice is brought to life by hearing actor Dino Nicandros, who provides Quasi's inner voice-spirit and, at most times, personifies one of the many friendly stone gargoyles Quasimodo interacts with and receives advice from in his forced solitude.
Let me just say that the warm, engaging rapport shared between McGinty and Nicandros is so genuinely touching and well-matched that you will wonder why this staging hasn't been introduced to this adaptation until now. The achingly expressive McGinty paired with Nicandros' outstanding, awe-inspiring, belt-tastic vocals is reason enough alone to see this production. Seriously, they are both stunning here.
I'm not ashamed to admit it, but when the pair performed Quasimodo's dreamy declaration "Out There" and, later, his self-deprecating ode to being tragically unloved, "Heaven's Light," I was reduced to a puddle of tears. McGinty and Nicandros' tandem performance hits all the right emotional peaks that this show needs. It made me long for every chance Quasimodo gets to express himself in song—because it meant seeing McGinty and hearing Nicandros create a unified, enjoyable performance.
McGinty's Quasimodo also shares heartwarming moments with the enchanting gypsy Esmeralda, played with palpable grace by Cassie Simone. Blessed with a heavenly voice, Simone gives the show's anthem "God Help The Outcasts"—her kind-hearted character's plea for mercy and assistance to all who suffer in the world—a gorgeous rendering that tugs at the heartstrings.
Simone's character soon becomes the center axis for the men fighting for her attention. She is, after all, the first (real) human to show genuine empathy and kindness towards Quasimodo, which Quasi, understandably, happily welcomes. Frollo, however, feels Esmeralda represents the kind of evil (i.e. witchcraft) that is pervading his city, so he wants her eliminated. Truth be told though, Frollo is really trying to squelch his lustful feelings towards her (ewwww) which is slowly coming to the surface. So if he can't convince the gal to cozy up to him, then, well, she must be an evil witch then—and, well, witches must die.
Meanwhile, the charming, strong-voiced Eric Kunze enters the fray as the flirtatious Captain Phoebus, and soon wins the affections of Esmeralda (why, I'm still a bit confounded even though I knew this was destined). While Kunze certainly gives his all and provides excellent vocal work throughout the show, the character feels the most underdeveloped amongst the principles, and at times the character does little to affect or advance the action at hand. At one point Phoebus and Esmeralda are later somehow thrown into the same jail cell the night before their execution (you know, so they can talk each other into doing the wrong thing). While, sure, the means to get them together seem ludicrous, it was obvious that it was merely a way to get them together to sing a penultimate romantic duet "Someday"—which, in all fairness, sounded quite beautiful.
But like this underdeveloped main character, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME is peppered with moments that could use some more tweaks. While mostly exquisite, filled with both moving and rousingly dynamic scenes, the show still has a few structural shortcomings.
A couple of scenes—the tavern sequence in the first act and the hallucination featuring St. Aphrodisius in the second act—prove to be momentum stoppers. Also slightly disappointing is the staging of Frollo's evil manifesto song "Hellfire" which, while sung spectacularly by Jacoby and the chorus, fails to truly convey the menacing evil and lustfulness bubbling under Frollo's guarded surface. Here was a moment for a truly dark, foreboding, eerie scene to unfold to unnerve the audience (as it did in the animated film and the original La Jolla production), but, alas, it didn't quite come to fruition. I was hoping for a more chilling mood to permeate what is supposed to be one of the musical's most unsettling sequences.
But beyond these aspects, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME is still a remarkably enjoyable production overall. As such, when the show barrels toward its emotional, genuinely moving, and very un-Disney-like conclusion, all these flaws will seem minor against the big picture: that this production's winningly lofty aspirations—just like the hopes of Quasimodo himself—will touch your heart and leave you mostly satisfied.
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Photos from the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts' production of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME by Michael Lamont.
The McCoy Rigby Entertainment presentation of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME continues at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through Sunday, October 9, 2016. The theater is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard in the city of La Mirada. Parking is Free. For tickets, visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.