Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
November 14, 2014
The musical spectacle is back. A grand, sumptuous epic has just taken over the La Jolla Playhouse: the U.S. premiere of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” produced in association with New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, by special arrangement with Disney Theatrical Group.
Some of the songs come from the 1996 Disney animated film, with its Oscar-nominated score: music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. This version, with a book by Peter Parnell, is even darker, and hews closer to the 1831 Victor Hugo novel.
The set is stunning, and certainly makes the church itself a character, as Hugo intended. Here, it’s a colossal tri-level, featuring gargoyles, niches for saints, and of course, the massive bells, which make a very dramatic first appearance. Employing the soul-stirring local choral ensemble, Sacra/Profana, adds to the feel of being inside a Cathedral.
The sound and lighting are superb, and the multi-layered story is told in a highly imaginative manner, switching narrators, with characters sometimes talking about themselves in the third person. The direction of Scott Schwartz is inventive, though inexplicably, the cast often comes downstage and sings the many anthems directly to the audience.
The voices are marvelous. The strongest overall performances come from the magnificent, commanding Patrick Page as that villainous Notre Dame archdeacon, Claude Frollo; Erik Lieberman as Clopin, the magical king of the gypsies; and Michael Arden as the bell-ringer Quasimodo, who makes himself misshapen before our eyes, and breaks our hearts with his gentle spirit, inarticulate speech and splendid voice.
A love quadrangle is at the center of the story, set in Paris, 1482, as self-sacrificing Quasimodo, self-righteous Frollo and self-serving Phoebus, Captain of the Guards, all fall hard for Esmeralda, the irresistible, compassionate gypsy street dancer. Alliances shift, and some will die revealing their true nature. “Who is the monster and who is the man?,” as the song goes.
The 14-member orchestra is inspired, the choreography underwhelming. But for undoubtedly Broadway-bound pageantry, you can’t beat this captivating gothic/romantic tale.
Before it even opened, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was extended through December 14, at the La Jolla Playhouse.
©2014 PAT LAUNER