BWW Reviews: Arden and Page Outstanding in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME

You don't normally expect a sexual reference as blunt as the one that comes early on in Peter Parnell's book for The Hunchback of Notre Dame to be in a Disney musical. It's something that would likely go over the heads of the children in the audience, but it's also in no way gratuitous.

Michael Arden & Company (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

In this solidly-crafted and attractively produced adaptation of Disney's 1996 animated musical film version of Victor Hugo's 1831 gothic novel, now getting its east coast premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse, the sexual longings of a character who has vowed to remain chaste plays a major role in the story-telling. Fortunately, the part is played by the exceptional actor Patrick Page, whose subtle way with subtext and thrilling baritone vocals get the point across completely and tastefully.

His performance is one of the two major high points of director Scott Schwartz's dark and touching production. The other is the work of Michael Arden as the titular Quasimodo. As the cruelly-sheltered bell-ringer of the great Paris Cathedral of Notre Dame, Arden is first seen as he really is; a good-looking, well-built guy. The on-stage application of strokes of sooty make-up and the fastening of a costume hunch emphasize the show's theme of the perception of beauty, a perception that's twisted by the final chorus.

Sweetly empathetic with his halted speech and powerful, but awkward, physicality, Arden's outstanding performance is one of endearing pathos, especially, when left alone, the character sings his unexpressed emotions in a clearer, hopeful voice.

Patrick Page (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Hugo's tale involves Gypsy dancer, Esmerelda (Ciara Renee), who inadvertently attracts the attention of three men for different reasons. Archdeacon Dom Claude Frollo (Page) feels he can't control his lust for her, Quasimodo becomes possessive of her after she is kind to him and Captain Phoebus de Martin (Andrew Samonsky), a soldier trying to control the revelries of the gypsies, is drawn to her bravery in resisting him and defending her people.

Alexander Dodge's unit set includes an imposing collection of bells lowered from above, with Arden swinging from ropes to ring them. In addition to the singing/dancing/actng chorus, the 32-member Continuo Arts Symphonic Chorus beautifully sings the liturgical moments of the score.

A good deal of the action, particularly moments that would be technically complicated to represent, are described by characters rather than fully seen. A bit old-fashioned, perhaps, but a charming way to emphasize traditional story-telling.

Classic novels adapted for the musical stage are often overblown with spectacle over substance, and while the book and score of The Hunchback of Notre Dame would better be described as proficient than engaging, the emphasis on the text over technology is appreciated. Thanks primarily to the two lead performances the evening is an enjoyable one, filled with good drama and moving emotions.

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