Friday, November 21, 2014

Review: La Jolla Playhouse's The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Michael Arden as Quasimodo

No matter what anyone says, you’d be a fool if you believed that the La Jolla Playhouse production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame wasn’t headed for Broadway. Produced by special arrangement with Disney Theatricals in association with Paper Mill Playhouse, with a powerhouse creative team that includes Alan Menken (music), Stephen Schwartz (lyrics), Peter Parnell (book) and Scott Schwartz (director); an incredibly talented cast of veteran Broadway actors; and a spectacular production design that transports the audience to 15th century Paris in all its massive glory, the deck is heavily weighted in its favor.

The lush music will give you chills (literally) with the sheer volume and resonance of its voices; a credit to the San Diego choral ensemble, Sacra/Profana who becomes part of the very walls of this Notre Dame. Their gorgeous waves of sound in “The Bells of Notre Dame” beckon you into the story and continue to lead you through to the tragic end. The power they add to the experience is thrilling.

Without a doubt, expectations are high for this latest marriage of modern day Disney storytelling and medieval Gothic Romance. Elements of both Victor Hugo’s epic novel and Disney’s animated film of The Hunchback of Notre Dame are part of this story that has found new life as a stage musical. But while the animated version played to the kiddies, this production is wrought from the passions of its four leading characters and those are not always G-rated.

Ciara Renée as Esmeralda (center) and the cast of
The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Photos by Kevin Berne

Archdeacon Frollo (Patrick Page) hides his lascivious desire for the gypsy Esmeralda (Ciara Renée) behind the pious robes of the church espousing sacred principles while pursuing her at every turn. The deformed bell-ringer Quasimodo (Michael Arden) loves her from afar for the kindness she has shown him in an otherwise cruel world, and Captain Phoebus (Andrew Samonsky) is ready to give up his gallivanting ways to save Esmeraldas life, even if the cost is his own. The villain, the innocent, the beauty, and the hero; in less studied hands these characters could easily remain two-dimensional like their cartoon counterparts but, in this rendering, a level of human frailty shows through that makes them much more complex.

Patrick Page as Frollo

Page’s commanding voice and towering presence are tailor-made for Frollo’s singular brand of oppression yet he also gives us a man torn by love of family, duty to the church, and the shame of his own lustful appetite. Renée is gloriously fiery as the object of everyone’s attention. She sings like an angel and dances with Romany brilliance but this Disney heroine remains an outcast in a world that will never give her a chance to rise above her station. 

Arden’s arresting physical transformation into the hunchback Quasimodo is done in full view of the audience. The exposed moment is surprisingly emotional and his heartbreaking performance is richly nuanced to create both monster and man in one. Vocally, the role is a demanding one and Arden turns the soaring melodies into heartfelt longings that stir the soul. It is a performance of a lifetime.

Alexander Dodge’s recreation of Notre Dame’s lofty bell tower dominates the stage while Howell Binkley’s lighting design spills moonlight and shadows to dramatically enhance the storytelling. Dodge uses whimsical accents for his scenic design that can be moved on and off easily to represent the city below. Where Quasimodo’s world is all shadows and secrets, the Festival of Fools in the streets of Paris, and the Court of Miracles, are full of color and life.

There is a great deal about this Hunchback that feels right and audiences are responding by filling the house to capacity night after night. I like the darker tone of the story and the way the production design favors that vision. Still, I got the sense that not everything has landed in the right place yet. Exposition is delivered as third-person narration that shortcuts the back story and helps explain the major shifts in location but I grew tired of it after a while. I wanted to see the story rather than hear about it. And though the score is gorgeous, its movie musical songs sometimes feel out of character against the more dramatic sound of the choral passages. Maybe that contrast is meant to highlight the chasm between classes but there were times that its distinctive Disney sound still pulled me out of the action.

But no matter, this Hunchback is quite wonderful and will surely resonate with those in search of a moving story. Go, if you can still get tickets, especially if you love beautiful music and passionate performances.

Oct. 26 - Dec. 14, 2014
La Jolla Playhouse

Located on the UCSD Campus via the Revelle Entrance
2910 La Jolla Village Drive
La Jolla, CA 92037
Tickets: (858) 550-1010 or

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