BWW Review: God Help The Hunchback
When your job is to share your honest feedback on local productions, the only thing more disappointing than delivering a negative review is having a poor audience experience. So, it is with regret that I share that THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, Lyric Stage's first production of the 2018-2019 season, although it has some sweet sounding moments, rarely accomplishes more than testing the endurance of its ticket buyers.
Before I get into the show's challenges, let me start with some positive feedback. First and foremost, Lyric's new home at Dallas' Majestic Theatre is truly stunning. Walking into the 1921 building is nothing short of a magical time travel that immediately enhances an evening on the town. Lyric President Stephen Jones commented with a wink in his opening night curtain speech that "it's nice to be someplace where you're wanted" (a subtle jab at their former landlord, Irving Arts Center). And the upgrade from a concession stand to a well-stocked bar certainly didn't hurt either.
Several principal characters in HUNCHBACK deserve major praise for their performances, namely Christopher J. Deaton as Captain Phoebus de Martin and Andrew Keeler as Quasimodo. As always, Deaton brings an unmatchable stage presence whenever he appears. His tough-as-nails tenor soars over the audience, despite the lack of memorable tunes awarded to his character. Similarly, with a wide emotional range, Andrew Keeler is truly a revelation in the titular role. Keeler manages to delicately balance both the physical and emotional struggle of the tortured "monster" while staying true to a believable and sympathetic performance full of warmth and humor. In addition, Christopher Sanders' (Dom Claude Frollo) rich baritone, Brandon McInnis' comical Clopin Trouillefou and Sarah Comley Caldwell's fully realized supporting roles (not to mention her impressive ensemble vocals) further enhance the act.
While director/choreographer Penny Ayn Maas cannot be held responsible for the largely dramatic yet consistently underwhelming script and score, her artistic efforts to enhance failed to deliver. With only minor exceptions, largely thanks to a handful of aware actors, the company appeared in several hours worth of endless straight lines and sloppy stage clumps, rarely attempting to engage in storytelling and opting instead for uncreative stage pictures. The result frequently upstaged the cast and left the audience searching for which well-sung actor might be solo at any given time. Maas' choreography neither took advantage of the talented ensemble's skills, nor did it allow the few upbeat numbers to explode with the energy they deserved. The icing on the cake was a head-scratching fire "effect" late in the show that would have been laughed off even a high school stage.
As musical director, Sheilah Vaugh Walker fared better in guiding the cast through Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz's challenging score, even if the balance between the actors and the pitch-perfect band was not quite yet even on opening night. However, the use of about a dozen choir singers (who appeared in the theatre's box seats, music books in hand) seemed overall unnecessary. Perhaps these skilled singers may have better been used onstage to enhance the narrative, but the few times they were utilized proved to only take away from the onstage action.
Although I've somehow to this point missed viewing Disney's animated version of Hunchback, the stage production seemed to have little appeal to viewers of any age. While Quasimodo is an appropriately sympathetic character, the lackluster material that supports his story is bland and downright boring. Perhaps this answers the question as to why the title failed to appear in New York after "pre-Broadway" engagements at both La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego and New Jersey's famed Paper Mill Playhouse back in 2014-2015.
HUNCHBACK closes tomorrow, Sunday November 19th at 2:30. Tickets ($29.50-$56.50) and more information can be found at www.LyricStage.org.