BWW Review: Musical HUNCHBACK On Top of the World at La Mirada
Victor Hugo's monumental romantic/gothic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, published in 1831, centers in, around and on top of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. So does the new musical of the same name written by Peter Parnell, Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken, which received its U.S. premiere at La Jolla Playhouse in 2014 and is currently receiving its Los Angeles premiere at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. Stephen Gifford's set replete with staiNed Glass windows, balcony and overhanging bells is scaled down from the original but still impressive and pulls you in effectively to another world, the ethereal realm of a higher power. Catholic boy that I am, every kyrie eleison exuded by the resounding chorus moved me to tears.
Also based on the 1996 Walt Disney animated film of the same name, Hunchback has the film's elegant and rich score by Schwartz and Menken in their first and only stage collaboration. A full 31-voice chorus is onstage throughout providing backup and superior interludes of religious music in the score throughout, like those unforgettable haunting kyries.
Deaf actor John McGinty plays the role of Quasimodo, as it was originally written for a deaf/mute actor. If you remember, Charles Laughton, who played the part in the 1939 film and was known for his exquisite speaking voice, was completely silent. At La Mirada under Glenn Casale's superior direction we are exceedingly lucky to have Broadway's strong character actor Mark Jacoby as Frollo and beautiful Cassie Simone as the enchanting gypsy temptress Esmeralda.
Hunchback is a feast for the eyes, the ears...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 (Eric Kunze). 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 (Shannon Stoeke) 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 (Kevin McMahon), 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. At the top of Act II, the spirit of Aphrodisius appears to Quasimodo and encourages him to leave the bell tower in pursuit of Esmeralda and her salvation from Frollo.
Marvelously staged by Casale with vibrant choreography from Dana Solimando, Hunchback's outstanding ensemble of McGinty, Jacoby and Simone make these legendary tragic characters come to exhilarating life. Wise choice that the creators have McGinty 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 lovely performance! Dino Nicandros supplies some of the speaking voice and all of the singing for Quasimodo with a sensational set of pipes, while McGinty signs passionately in ASL. Jacoby makes Frollo cold and calculating, a pillar of evil; Simone brings genuine beauty and sincerity to Esmeralda. She is a true triple threat performer with a richly gorgeous singing voice. Eric Kunze 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.
I saw the original production of Hunchback in La Jolla two years ago, which later played the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. It was big, bold and wonderful. This somewhat smaller rendering with a deaf actor in the title role reminded me of those great productions at Deaf West Theatre in LA with their terrific sense of intimacy, and with two actors in one role, a real sense of community. Marcy Froelich is to be lauded for her beautiful costumes, especially the dress in purple for Esmeralda, and let's not forget musical director Dennis Castellano whose orchestra brings the gorgeous score to life.
You only have until October 9 to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It is a show that has it all: entertainment, a great score, a heartwarming story and a marvelous cast under the sterling direction of the one and only Glenn Casale. So, go, go, go to La Mirada! Don't miss it!
(photo credit: Michael Lamont)