BWW Reviews: THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME
Victor Hugo's monumental romantic/gothic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, published in the mid 19th century, centers in, around and on top of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. The new musical of the same name written by Peter Parnell, Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken, which is receiving its U.S. premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, capitalizes on this fact. Alexander Dodge's massive set of the cathedral replete with gargoyles, multiple statues, stained-glass window and huge overhanging bells is a work of art that dominates the action onstage in front of it. In fact, it is impossible to take your eyes off at least a part of it for a split second.
Also based on the 1996 Walt Disney animated film of the same name, Hunchback has the film's lush score by Schwartz and Menken, and a full chorus from San Diego Sacra/Profana is onstage throughout providing backup and superior interludes of religious music in the score. Michael Arden leads the cast in a career-defining role as Quasimodo. Also on hand under Scott Schwartz's superb direction are Patrick Page as Frollo and beautiful Ciara Renee as the enchanting gypsy temptress Esmeralda.
Hunchback is a feast for the eyes...and the soul. Sticking to the darker emotions of the novel, and keeping plot details to a minimum book writer Peter Parnell relies on intense characterization to keep the story riveting. No cardboard cutouts are Quasimodo, Frollo, Esmeralda or Captain Phoebus (Andrew Samonsky). They are real flesh and blood human beings experiencing the pain and humiliation of each moment. Quasimodo's world of isolation is governed every step of the way by Frollo whose philandering alcoholic brother Jehan (Lucas Coleman) left the sanctuary of the church, contracted the pox and with his gypsy girlfriend gave birth to the deformed child. Frollo, now archdeacon of Notre Dame, takes the baby and vows to bring him up righteous and pure, which by his standards means keeping him in the bell tower isolated from the hostile world below. When Quasimodo escapes by his own volition on the Day of the Feast of Fools in 1482, he encounters a gypsy caravan performing in the square. He is quickly bullied and ridiculed by the lot, and only dancer Esmeralda takes pity on him, giving him water and taking the time to comfort him. Frollo sends him back to the tower and invites Esmeralda into the church on the pretense of nurturing her soul with spirituality. In reality, he lusts longingly for her, mocking his sacred vows as a priest of God. Of course, Esmeralda denies him, so Frollo condemns her and has her sought out as a criminal by King Louis XI.
It is Frollo's unrelenting evil in his treatment of Esmeralda, who is decried for 'witchcraft' by a sanctimonious Catholic Church, and also of Quasimodo that brings about the downfall of all three. The Middle Ages were on the brink of change; the Renaissance was about to happen; and Christianity is displayed here at its lowest level of hypocrisy. Frollo teaches Quasimodo about Saint Aphrodisius (Neal Mayer), who trusted the people and ended up beheaded by a band of pagans. This is meant as one of his 'lessons to be learned', but actually the beheading is classified mere legend, proving Frollo once more a defiler of the truth.
Marvelously staged by Scott Schwartz with vibrant choreography from Chase Brock, Hunchback's outstanding ensemble of Arden, Page and Renee make these legendary tragic characters come to exhilarating life. Wise choice that the creators have Arden transform physically at the top in front of our eyes as in The Elephant Man. His real deformity works from the inside out, creating a solitary man of deep feeling who speaks mostly to gargoyles yet does indeed know the true meaning of love and is not afraid to seek it out, defending his birthright. A truly heartwarming, brilliant performance! Page makes Frollo cold and selfish, a pillar of evil; Renee brings beauty and honesty to Esmeralda. She is a true triple threat performer with a richly gorgeous singing voice. Samonsky is brave and stalwart as Phoebus and the entire ensemble work wondrously well as a unit. With the chorus strategically placed on two tiers stage left and right, their miraculous sound becomes a steady evocation/reaction of the voice of God in all its joy and sorrow, as witness to all the errant behavior. If only the walls of Notre Dame Cathedral could talk, this is what we would hear! The place is thus in reality the main character of the play.
The cast and creative team of The Hunchback of Notre Dame have achieved a great musical triumph. The experience is deeply moving, totally unforgettable, ensuring the show a commercial success. Be sure to secure tickets now through December 14 only!