BWW Review: THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME at White Plains Performing Arts Center
WPPAC's new production of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME is nothing short of spectacular. It is certainly one of the finest, if not the finest production they have mounted in years, musically, visually and vocally. The show is an extremely ambitious hybrid of Victor Hugo's original 1831 novel and the 1996 Disney animated film. Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz have reimagined the movie into a darker more dramatic show that retains more of Hugo's original storyline than the Disney script.
The show is a remarkable piece of theater due in no small part to the superb performance of it cast-led by Bobby Cassell who does a remarkable job of passionately and physically transforming himself into the show's tragic title character. The musical re-instates Quasimodo's deafness from the novel - the result of a lifetime spent ringing the cathedral bells - which adds to his isolation. Incidentally, the bells in this production are absolutely marvelous, as is the rest of the huge gothic cathedral set, complete with arches, buttresses and religious statues large and small. Quasimodo's speech impediment and deafness disappear whenever he is talking to his imaginary "friends," the gargoyles and stone figures in the bell tower - and most notably when he is singing. In addition, his friends provide a great deal of informative yet somewhat unnecessary exposition before most of the scenes in the first act.
Every character in the show is struggling with conflicting emotions of some kind. This presents a bit of disconnect as Peter Parnell's book tends to lean toward the dark side, while Menken's lush score is full of beautiful melodies and Schwartz's lyrics stress the good in everyone and an eternal hopefulness. There is also a certain sameness to all Disney characters in all Disney stories (and to a lot of Menken's songs!): the strong, single-minded heroine (with the heart of gold), the puffed-up egotistical hero, the misunderstood and often physically challenged central character (also with a heart of gold), and The Hunchback has them all - luckily, a uniformly, first-rate cast keeps them all charismatic and endearing.
At the heart of the show is a love quadrangle, and at the heart of that is the gypsy Esmeralda, played with appropriate verve and subtle dignity by Jenna Dallacco (last seen at WPPAC as Jane in Tarzan). Ms. Dallacco's plummy voice was a perfect match for role. She imbued the show's most famous number, the anthemic "God Help the Outcasts" with a plaintive poignance, and limpid vocal tone that tore at the audience's heartstrings and certainly provided one of the show's emotional high points.
The other points in the quadrangle, the hero Captain Phoebus, (played with great gusto and bright booming tenor voice, by Matthew Billman), and Arch Deacon Claude Frollo, (performed with delectable malevolence and dark velvety voice by the wonderful James Zannelli) were equally strong characters both dramatically and vocally, as they both vie for Esmeralda's affection. Phoebus is seduced by her beauty, seductive dancing and singing; Frollo, however, is drawn by the taboo of lust for a gypsy, who represents everything he is against. When Frollo is incapable of tamping down his lustful feelings towards her, he decides he must eliminate her.
Meanwhile, poor Quasimodo is the final player in the tragic love quadrangle. Esmeralda shows him kindness and sympathy (when he is being beaten in the town square) and he understandably falls head over heels in love with her, and becomes her sworn protector - and you just know he will eventually come to loggerheads with his master Archdeacon Frollo! Although much of the plot is well-known, (and thereby somewhat predictable) director Frank Portanova does a fine job of keeping the story moving and action fluid throughout the show.
The musical features a number of sumptuous production numbers that are exquisitely choreographed by the brilliant Lexie Fennelle Frare (one of the finest young choreographers working today) and although several of the songs/production numbers are largely extraneous to the plot, but they are certainly a feast for the eyes and ears.
In fact, the show is absolutely replete with beautiful visual and vocal movements, especially when the mammoth 32-person chorus is in full swing. Cleverly attired in monk robes and subtlety ensconced on the second story balcony of the huge and magisterial set, the chorus brought an enormous amount of depth and passion to the sound and the show itself. Whether accompanying the leads or delivering a solo monastic choral number, the chorus provided a gigantic wall of sound that spoke in a visceral manner of the power of the church in 15th century Europe. Special kudos to conductor and musical director Stephen Ferri who marshalled together the largest orchestra and largest chorus in WPPAC history with extraordinary results.
The chemistry between all of the leads was pitch perfect, and the genuinely tender moments between Cassell's Quasimodo and Dallacco's Ezmeralda were especially powerful and their final meeting was a total heart-breaker.
It's interesting to note that in over a dozen musical adaptations and more than a dozen film versions of The Hunchback, no two have exactly the same ending - and none use the original Hugo ending as it was written. One can only suppose that all the adaptors have felt the original Hugo ending was not right for their productions (although sadly, none have really improved on it). There are actually several awkward structural issues with the book, but not enough to temper the overall enjoyability of the show. Happily, this version of the Hunchback at least makes mention of the final scene from the novel as Hugo intended it (no spoilers here!) before launching into a reprise of the opening choral number "The Bells of Notre Dame."
And there were more than a few hankies out by the end of the show and the audience rewarded the cast with a long, loud and richly-deserved standing ovation. Big congrats to WPPAC for successfully pulling off one of their most ambitious productions ever. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a sensational show that the whole familly can and will enjoy!
December 22nd, 2017 - January 14th, 2018.