There aren't many stage musicals that can get away with an entr'acte medley of its otherwise English-language songs translated into Latin. No, I'm not alluding to a theatrical adaptation of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (thankfully) but rather to the new US version of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, playing now through December 14th at La Jolla Playhouse. Somewhat surprisingly, this audacious entr'acte and other, more medieval elements of this adult-leaning treatment of Victor Hugo's 1831 novel and the 1996 animated film end up working splendidly.
Peter Parnell's book for the musical (see Reverend's pre-production interview with Parnell here) draws more from the original source than the Disney telling did, including restoring chief villain Claude Frollo to an archdeacon position in the Church rather than a secular judge and making the title character, a.k.a. Quasimodo, deaf from years of ringing the cathedral's massive bells with no ear protection. However, most of the film's exceptional, Oscar-nominated score by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz made the translation (only the gargoyles' comical "A Guy Like You" was axed) and has been augmented with a handful of new songs. Their new tunes don't make much of an impression, although "Top of the World," sung by Quasimodo (beautifully played with a minimum of makeup by out actor Michael Arden, a veteran of LA's acclaimed Deaf West Theatre) and seductive gypsy Esmeralda (the beautiful Ciara Renee), benefits from its staging atop Notre Dame and Schwartz's lyrics for "In a Place of Miracles," which was written for the movie but cut during development, feature resonant, timely sentiments of love and peace.
As Frollo, frequent Broadway heavy Patrick Page commands attention as the somewhat more sympathetically-drawn antagonist. He remains as anti-gypsy as before but has been given a back story about how his beloved younger brother fell in with a gypsy woman and subsequently died of disease, for which Frollo now blames all gypsies. Quasimodo is also given a more personal connection to Frollo, in light of which the stage Frollo treats his ward a bit more kindly than the movie version did. I'm not sure how faithful to Victor Hugo any of these storylines are, if they are at all, but they do help make Frollo less black and white moralistically-speaking than previously depicted.
La Jolla Playhouse's production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame benefits most dramatically from Alexander Dodge's breathtaking, stage-filling yet versatile set and director Scott Schwartz's (Stephen's son) impressive staging of the action therein with a reliance on old-fashioned theatrical sleight of hand instead of high-tech visual effects. While the space is somewhat limited for Chase Brock's simple yet energetic choreography, it nonetheless allows for a proscenium-filling downpour of hot lead, a genuinely "how'd they do that?" moment involving the beheaded Saint Aphrodisius (personified by Neal Mayer) stepping down from a stained glass window, and Quasimodo's classic rescue of Esmeralda from the stake by swinging through the square in front of Notre Dame. These are just a few examples of the show's virtuoso technical achievements.
In the end, though, the power of Hugo's classic story of love, hypocrisy and redemption shines through any theatrical tricks or Disney-fied treatment employed here. Hunchback is the most adult and un-Disney of any stage versions of the studio's films to date, which makes me very curious to see how well it will go over on Broadway if it makes it there. Given the instant standing ovation and rapturous reception it received at the mid-run performance I attended, I have a hunch it may do very well indeed.
Reverend's Rating: B+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.