The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Paper Mill Playhouse - Millburn, NJ - March 2015
Review by John Kenrick
The photos below are used with the permission of Paper Mill Playhouse.
It is thrilling to see the Disney stage musical grow up.
Disney's animated films took a daring step forward with their 1996 adaptation of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. American critics and movie goers were not enthusiastic, but the rest of the world embraced the film, bringing ticket sales to well over $300 million.
If you re one of those who cannot imagine a singing Quasimodo, you may not find this stage version to your taste. If, like me, you will take a moving theatrical experience on its own terms, then you will most likely agree with the opening night audience at Paper Mill Playhouse, which greeted this production with prolonged, deafening cheers.
The stellar songwriting team of Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast, Newsies) and Stephen Schwartz (Pippin, Wicked) have spent years developing a stage version, adding several finely crafted songs to an already ambitious score. There are now perhaps a few too many power ballads, but all are remarkably well written.
A new libretto by Peter Parnell restores many elements of Hugo's original story, gives greater dimension to some of the crucial characters, and incorporates some classic stage techniques. Director Scott Schwartz stages his father's work with a loving and inventive hand, balancing hi-tech spectacle with a sensitive presentation of the tortured and complex characters at the heart of this story.
In a bow to ancient Greece, the action is narrated by a chorus that also plays a wide range of supporting characters. The action is framed in a two story wooden structure reminiscent of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. And while Notre Dame's bells make a jaw-dropping entrance to complete the setting, this production leaves most of its jaw-dropping moments to powerhouse performers making the most of some damned fine material.
As Quasimodo, Michael Arden makes his first entrance looking like the very picture of a leading man. He then smears his face with a few streaks of makeup, straps a pillow to his shoulder, pulls on a mantle--and thus transforms himself into the monstrous hunchback before the audiences eyes as the chorus poses the show's central question, "What makes a monster and what makes a man?"
Arden maintains a broken posture till the final scene, but his broken speech (reminiscent of Charles Laughton in an earlier screen version of this tale) melts away whenever he sings. This makes perfect sense, since Quasimodo's songs all reveal the passionate soul locked in his cruelly malformed body. Arden's soaring vocals made the most of "Out There" and several new numbers.
Ciara Renee is extremely attractive, but still seems to be finding her way into the challenging and pivotal role of the gypsy Esmeralda. And while Andrew Samonsky has all the physical swagger one expects as Captain Phoebus, he brings nothing memorable to the role. If this production hopes to move across the Hudson to Broadway, these two actors will both have to step up their game. Otherwise, Hunchback's tragic love quadrangle will not be strong enough.
At present, this production's greatest asset is Patrick Page's brilliant, multi-layered performance as Dom Claude Frollo, the priest who adopts Quasimodo and raises him to be Notre Dame's bell ringer. His hateful actions, never clearly explained in Disney's animated version, are here given clear motivation. Page slowly builds his character, turning a one-dimensional villain into someone all to believably human. His searing rendition of "Hellfire" is a genuine showstopper, and he makes Frollo's inner torment powerful enough to keep this epic story moving to its harrowing climax.
The exceptionally versatile ensemble--led by Erik Liberman as the unscrupulous gypsy Clopin--provides solid support, serving equally well as gargoyles, gypsies, Parisians, and even a headless singing saint. The Continuo Arts Symphonic Chorus is on hand to to provide additional vocals, making this one of the most breathtaking singing ensembles I have heard on any stage.
Alexander Dodge's magnificent set and Alejo Vietti's handsome costumes are brilliantly lit by lighting designer Howell Binkley. Chase Brock's choreography adds nothing memorable -- this production deserves far better. Happily, Scott Schwartz's direction keeps the action focused at all times.
Like the best of Disney's previous stage musicals, The Hunchback of Nortre Dame provides a series of thrilling moments and memorable songs. Unlike some of their previous efforts, this is not a kiddie show, but a musical crafted for adults. With a few minor tweaks, it could easily find a warm welcome on Broadway. As it is, it is already a memorable, moving theatrical experience Paper Mill audiences will talk about for years to come. If you can get a ticket, do!
This production runs through April 5, 2015.