BWW Review: 5th Ave's HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME Grows Up and Gets Dark
Let me start, Dear Readers, by saying this is NOT the frothy Disney cartoon you may recall from your youth. Yes, it does contain many of the Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz songs from the 1996 Disney animated film but this show is more akin to the Victor Hugo novel than the cartoon. Gone are the silly, wise-cracking gargoyles whom you might find recreated in a Happy Meal, and amped up is the story of religious persecution, intolerance, sex, and betrayal. Leading me to wonder, what audience are they aiming for? Disney songs, filled out with heady albeit soaringly beautiful choral pieces, and a dark and gritty story that (spoiler alert) does not end well for everyone. And this is my biggest problem with the show, it can't make up its mind as to what it wants to be.
In this retelling we still focus on the hunchback Quasimodo in the bell tower who's cloistered away there by the religious and controlling Judge Frollo (Allen Fitzpatrick) to keep him out of harm's way until the beautiful gypsy Esmerelda (Dan'yelle Williamson) comes to town and shows some kindness to Quasimodo prompting him to fall in love with her. But the pious Frollo who despises the heathen Gypsies finds himself also attracted to her but when she spurns his advances he orders her arrest as a woman practicing black magic and orders the new Captain of the Guards Phoebus (Brandon O'Neill) to bring her in. But his own affection for her as well as his conscience gets the better of him and they both become fugitives.
The story gets a further overhaul in that we now get insight into the backstory of Frollo and his brother which led to the birth of Quasimodo in a gorgeous prologue that set the perfect tone to the piece. Plus, in another nod to the original story, they've not shied away from the fact that Quasimodo is deaf and cast him with deaf actor Joshua M. Castille allowing him to provide the "monster's" audible voice but then having E.J. Cardona provide the singing voice while on stage mostly as one of the gargoyles (just no longer of the wise-cracking variety) as Quasimodo's inner monologue.
The newer, or rather, older telling of the story, the one more closely resembling the Hugo novel, works fine and the devices used in telling that story are fantastic but it still feels like two different shows jammed together. On the one hand you have these songs written for the animated film, granted written by these amazing composers but over 20 years ago filling in much of the score. Then you have the rest of the show with newer stuff, written today, written with a more choral sensibility and with much more gravitas. And the newer stuff does little to move any kind of character or story along, it's just pretty. And it's the lack of melding of these two sides of the show together that left me wondering, what show am I watching and for who did they make it?
Castille and Cardona do an excellent job as the deformed creature giving him tons of heart and making him extremely likable and a total hero. And I must comment on Cardona's performance of "Heaven's Light", one of the new songs I did enjoy, as he brought down the house with it. Williamson is a stunner as the sultry and strong Esmerelda and her rendition of the iconic "God Help the Outcasts" was a showstopper. Fitzpatrick makes for a wonderful baddie and inhabits the role beautifully without ever taking him too far and even managed to elicit some boos (for his character not his performance, I'm sure) during his curtain call. O'Neill is quite dashing as Captain Phoebus but unfortunately is given very little to work with in this show. He's one of the least memorable Disney "princes" and I guess they didn't feel the need to beef up his character for the stage show. And kudos to the ensemble as well as the ever on-stage Pacific Lutheran University Choral Union for providing an army of voices that reached to the heavens and beyond.
All told, I liked the tone and expanded story, I just wish they could reconcile the old stuff with the new to make them feel like they were from the same show. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give the 5th Avenue Theatre's production of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" a muddled YAY-. And finally, a note for the parents, while I'm all for bringing your kids to see theater, not sure how much they're going to love this no-longer-Disney musical.
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" performs at the 5th Avenue Theatre through June 24th. For tickets or information contact the 5th Avenue Theatre box office at 206-625-1900 or visit them online at www.5thavenue.org.