Review Roundup: THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME Opens at Paper Mill - UPDATED!

By: Mar. 18, 2015
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Paper Mill Playhouse presents The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which first played to rave reviews in La Jolla). The production opened last night, March 15. The Hunchback of Notre Dame started previews on March 4, 2015, and runs eight times a week at the Millburn, New Jersey theater through April 5, 2015.

Inspired by the classic Victor Hugo novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame has a book by Peter Parnell, music by Alan Menken (Disney's The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast) and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin). The Hunchback of Notre Dame is directed by Scott Schwartz and choreographed by Chase Brock.

Leading the company once again are Michael Arden (Big River) as Quasimodo, Patrick Page (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark) as Dom Claude Frollo, Ciara Renée (Pippin) as Esmeralda, Andrew Samonsky (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) as Captain Phoebus de Martin and Erik Liberman (Lovemusik) as Clopin Trouillefou.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a dramatic retelling of the famous love story on a grand scale, with a lush, emotionally rich score.

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Charles Isherwood, The New York Times: Bridging the gap between those two aesthetics -- Hugo's darkly thundering melodramatics and the smiley-faced warmth of a Disney cartoon -- proves tricky. While the musical has a few moments of lightheartedness...the spirit of Monsieur Hugo...tends to dominate...Dom Claude Frollo, played with sinister suavity by Patrick once again the archdeacon of the titular cathedral...Mr. Arden, who straps on his hump before our eyes, speaks in a strangled slur -- as the character did not in the movie. Mr. Arden has a powerful voice, so fortunately when Quasimodo sings, the speech impediment evaporates and the syllables ring out clearly: We hear the sound of his wounded but pure heart...Mr. Parnell's serviceable book has the whiff of anachronism here and there, but a bigger problem is the heavy use of narration...Mr. Menken's music is melodic as always, and Mr. Schwartz's lyrics are nimble if not particularly inspired...In keeping with the creators' intentions to return the story to its darker roots, this "Hunchback" ends far less happily than the Disney movie.

Frank Scheck, The Hollywood Reporter: For all the obvious effort and careful stagecraft that has gone into this long-gestating project, the show would probably benefit from being shorn of its Disney imprimatur. That's because it features a decidedly darker tone than its animated inspiration...this Hunchback is both too mature in its themes for younger children and insufficiently weighty to attract discerning adults. While its ambitions are laudable, the execution is muddled. The show is impressive on many levels...Menken's uncommonly complex, classically-influenced score often soars...Parnell's book relies too heavily on familiar story-theater elements, with the performers often using direct address to describe the plot machinations. But the melodramatic tale is stirringly rendered, with the fast-paced action delivered in a relatively tight two-and-a-half hours...Arden is terrific in the title role, superbly conveying his character's emotional pain and physical deformities while beautifully singing such emotive numbers as "Out There" and "Heaven's Light"...Page makes Frollo an intriguingly conflicted character suffused with a genuine complexity, and his powerful baritone voice is wonderfully showcased in such songs as "Sanctuary" and the showstopping "Hellfire."

Robert Kahn, NBC New York: Paper Mill's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" transports us to 15th-century Paris, with the kind of solid and stately set -- a moody cathedral bell tower -- we'd expect from deep-pocketed benefactor Disney Theatricals. But there's much about "Hunchback," inspired by the Victor Hugo novel and based on the animated musical, that isn't very Disney-ish..."Hunchback" is a love story about sexual obsession, embraces its darkness. Ultimately, there's a little too-much narrative "tell," and not quite enough "show" to consistently hold attention for two-and-a-half hours...Their music is rich and complex, but Menken and Schwartz are missing support: Peter Parnell's book is scattershot, and the direction by Scott Schwartz, the lyricist's son, is lacking confidence when it's needed most, at the musical's climax...The talented actors are the best things about "Hunchback"...Songs-of-desire, such as the heart-tugging, "Out There," seem custom-built for Arden's well-tuned pipes. Page makes for an imposing Frollo, with an equally stunning voice suited to the chilling "Hellfire"...

Joe Dziemianowciz, New York Daily News: At its best, "Hunchback" offers four topflight lead performances. As the unfairly outcast hunchback, Michael Arden sings as loud and clear as the bells atop Notre Dame. Patrick Page, a go-to villain on Broadway, brings gravity and burly vocals as Frollo, Quasimodo's deeply religious and creepy caregiver. Andrew Samonsky adds hunkiness as the soldier Phoebus. And Ciara Renee is earthy and lovely as the gypsy Esmeralda...The look of the show is also very good. Alexander Dodge's lavish bell-tower, Alejo Vietti's gritty period costumes and Howell Binkley's dynamic lights lend to the atmosphere...This stage musical smartly excises comic relief from the film's giggling gargoyles. But recurring the production child's storytime effect...You'd expect that pairing two greats like Menken...and Schwartz...would add up to music bigger than the sum of the parts. But these songs are largely lackluster - and elaborate orchestrations and a big chorus can't mask that. "Hunchback" also is weighed down by angst. Anxiety arises so much that there's rarely a chance to breathe and savor what's beautiful about the show.

Matt Windman, AM New York: ..."Hunchback" makes for an unusually dark and chilling piece of musical theater which explores physical deformity, religious extremism, sexual repression and even genocide. This may be the first Disney musical meant for adults rather than kids...The rich score, with music by Alan Menken ("Beauty and the Beast") and lyrics of Stephen Schwartz ("Wicked"), has been significantly expanded beyond the handful of songs from the movie. Though not exactly catchy, the songs have a hefty weight that reflects the source material. With a lavish set resembling the Notre Dame cathedral, the lavish, medieval-style production is built around a direct storytelling concept in which the versatile cast is enacting the famous tale for the audience. They are backed by a large church-style choir, adding a great deal of vocal power. Arden gives a vibrant performance as Quasimodo, who can barely communicate with others. Page...combines a commanding presence and deep baritone voice with shades of Frollo's complexities.

Michael Giltz, The Huffington Post: ...the show boasts truly excellent singing from its four leads, huge vocal support from the Continuo Arts Symphonic Chorus that certainly adds punch to the show's many, many climactic moments and superior playing from the orchestra conducted by musical director Brent-Alan Huffman. Quite simply, this work could not ask for a better showcase. The many failings on display are strictly its own...It has a new book by Peter Parnell and a great deal of sound and fury...But when not seeming like a poor cousin to Les Miserables, the show feels like all peaks and no valleys. The two romantic leads are cardboard cutouts on paper. Renée adds some genuine charm as Esmerelda but Samonsky feels resolutely modern as Phoebus. Patrick Page fares much better as the conflicted Frollo but it's almost entirely to his presence...all the songs blend together...Those who are musically inclined will appreciate the complexity of the score, the motifs for characters that are repeated throughout and the Latin choral work drawing on classic religious melodies for the act two curtain raiser. But no one will be singing's quite bereft of any theatrical magic from director Scott Schwartz and his creative team; the climax is the first thing they should have tackled and solved but in fact they never came close to figuring it out.

Ronni Reich, The Star-Ledger: An underdog in a lonely tower finds his inner strength. A handsome soldier shirks the status quo to pursue the love of a beautiful, kindhearted woman. But at every turn, an evil authority tries to thwart their happiness. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" at the Paper Mill Playhouse has all the makings of a fairy tale - until it doesn't...the new work draws more heavily on the shared source, Victor Hugo's novel, and takes violent, tragic turns. The resulting new work boasts an inspired score, a first-rate cast led by Michael Arden and Ciara Renée, and dazzling scenery and special effects. But the play is difficult to pin down and invest in emotionally.

Jay Lustig, ..."The Hunchback of Notre Dame"...isn't a typical musical, embracing not just the romantic and comic elements in the famous story, but the tragic as well. With a sturdy set of songs by composer Alan Menken ("The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast") and lyricist Stephen Schwartz ("Wicked," "Pippin"), fine acting, a sumptuous set and even some special effects to add a touch of magic, the result is a powerful experience. But it's also more solemn and never as simplistically crowd-pleasing as you might expect from a musical whose roots are partially in an animated Disney film from the 1990s.

Adam F. Cohen, New Jersey Stage: Visually, the show is stunning, and Howell Binkley's lights against Dodge's set works powerfully and reflect the gothic mode of Victor Hugo's original novel. Director Scott Schwartz's de-emphasizes the special effects and focuses on the performers...the most powerful theatrical moment is Quasimodo becoming a Hunchback by donning his hump and scars. Arden's physicality and delicateness marks a delightful turn as the lead. While thespians change roles before our eyes and narrate the action in third-person direct address, forming a Greek chorus that largely only Quasimodo and the audience can hear. There's little in the way of Peter Parnell's book, save for some exposition, he leaves the heavy lifting to the songs. And there are some beautifully sung moments - though not enough for Arden who shines in "Top of the World" and leads with detailed, nuanced delivery, and outstanding vocal in "Made of Stone" While Page brings down the house with his wickedness-justifying anthem "Hellfire".

Check back for updates!

Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

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