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So as you know, I stopped writing lengthy reviews on this site this year, keeping the blog as more of a film diary of sorts.  Lo and behold,...

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Theater Review - The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Directed by Scott Schwartz
Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Peter Parnell
Where: The Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, New Jeresy
When: Wednesday, April 1, 2015
One of these days, I swear I'm getting back on track with my Disney Discussions and when I do, The Hunchback of Notre Dame will be one of the first featured.  In my mind, Hunchback is in my Top Three Disney animated movies of all time (and I hope it stays there upon a rewatch), so when I heard that the long-gestating stage adaptation of the musical had moved from a successful run in Germany, been reworked, and was premiering in the US, I jumped at the chance to check this out.  Hopes were very high -- perhaps unfairly so -- and while I can't say I loved everything about the production I saw at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse, it's certainly a worthy adaptation that feels (and this is a good thing) even decidedly more un-Disney than the film itself (which is already one of Disney's darkest films to date).  

The musical follows a similar storyline to the movie, so no need to rehash it here, however, there is certainly more depth given to all of our leads in Peter Parnell's book (with the exception of one which I'll discuss in a bit).  Perhaps the biggest change (beyond the play's finale which rejiggers things dramatically in ways that more closely mirror the book and create a less than fairytale ending for all parties involved) is that the stage adaptation makes Quasimodo the nephew of Frollo who here is not a judge as he is in the film, but the Archdeacon of Notre Dame.  Quasimodo's father, Jehan, was a free-spirited man standing in stark contrast to the firmness and purported piety of his brother Frollo who found sanctuary in the church.  When Jehan is stricken with disease, Frollo is called to his bedside and asked to take care of Jehan's son (born of a gypsy woman who also died).  Upon seeing the disfigured infant, Frollo reluctantly agrees but only under the notion that he will lock this deformed being in the church's bell tower forever.  This familial connection (which I'm not even sure is in the book -- the wikipedia page doesn't inform me of that) gives a powerful and almost heartbreaking undertone to all of Quasimodo and Frollo's scenes together and is a much welcomed addition.
The much darker conclusion truly makes us question "who is the monster and who is the man" as one of musical's lyrics asks us.  While Frollo certainly still retains the "evil crown" in this piece with his maniacal lusting after the alluring gypsy Esmeralda and his unjust treatment of his nephew, our title character certainly isn't the beacon of morality at the play's end which makes one leave the theater feeling as if they've seen a surprisingly adult production as opposed to one produced by Disney.  Unfortunately, the play still hasn't quite found the right balance in terms of how far "adult" to take things and part of that stems from the new songs created by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.  While not all disappointing (new song "Top of the World" is lovely), several are laughably bad and pedestrian at times.  Schwartz's lyrics in "Rest and Recreation" -- a number created to introduce us to ladies' man and French soldier Phoebus -- feel as if some horny twelve year-old was reciting what he thought would win him a woman.  Menken's flamenco-esque opening to "The Tavern Song (Thai Mol Piyas)" almost elicited an audible laugh from me as it rather bluntly introduces us to the seedy brothel-esque establishment frequented by the Parisian gypsies.  New tunes "Esmeralda" and "In a Place of Miracles" have potential, but get bogged down by a few too many voices thrown into the mix.

However, the songs we've come to know and love from the film all shine and more than once I found myself getting chills as I saw these soaring classics being performed live on stage.  The orchestrations by Michael Starobin, sound design by Gareth Owen, the huge choral ensemble by the Continuo Arts Symphonic Chorus, and the fifteen piece orchestra (larger than some Broadway productions) conducted by Brent-Alan Huffman are spectacular, adding such fullness and vigor to the already powerful songs created by Menken and Schwartz.  Admittedly, I found myself missing some of the film's incredible Latin chants in the play's first act, but was absolutely thrilled when the wonderful choir (who remain onstage throughout the entire play) began singing several of them in Act II.  Some of the reworked songs don't quite land as well as they do in the film -- I thought the opening number "The Bells of Notre Dame" lacked a little of the drive that catapults the film's momentum so well and usually rousing "Topsy Turvy" was burdened with the addition of the truly awful aforementioned "Rest and Recreation" interspersed throughout it -- but overall the movie's songs truly come alive onstage.
Menken and Schwartz's songs for Hunchback are not easy ones to sing, but this production has found a stellar cast that more than ably handles the unenviable task.  Although the titular character certainly takes center stage often, this play really has two co-leads with the other being Patrick Page's Frollo.  I had seen Page previously (in a musical that's best not to mention by name) and found him to be the only shining thing in that disastrous production.  Here, Page proves that when placed in a better work, he can shine even brighter.  With a booming, bellowing voice, his Frollo is at his best as he explores his seedier side lusting after Esmerelda in the wonderful "Hellfire," but what I found equally intriguing is how Page imbues a more dulcet, soothing, and fatherly tone when speaking with Quasimodo.  There's more depth in this villain here than in the film and his makes the character much more interesting.
Samantha Massell took on the role of Esmeralda the evening I saw the production and it's one of those cases where I doubt I would've known she was an understudy if there wasn't a little piece of paper in the program telling me so.  "God Help the Outcasts" is a heartbreakingly beautiful number in the film and the stage production creates a similarly eloquent experience.  Esmeralda is also given a (somewhat) new duet with Phoebus called "Someday" (created for the film, but nixed) that gives both characters an emotional moment towards the film's end that epitomizes much of the play's overall themes.  It's a gorgeous quiet number in a play that finds much of its power in bombast (once again, not a bad thing).

"Someday" is also the only moment in which Phoebus feels realistically human.  Unfortunately, this character portrayed by Andrew Samonsky is the play's weak link.  Samonsky's voice is certainly well-suited for the machismo of the character, but Parnell's book makes Phoebus disappointingly one-note and cartoonish.  In the film, this cartoonish nature doesn't grate, but in the play, it doesn't translate well standing up against the realistic intricacies of the other characters.  Rather interestingly, the book to the play takes the film's most joyous (though cunning) character in Clopin and downplays his comedic tendencies quite a bit.  Erik Liberman does a nice job in the role -- and I appreciated the new nuances he gives many of his numbers whether that be from him or from Menken/Schwartz -- but there's a certain joie de vivre missing.  (Admittedly, the whole play could stand a few more "happy" moments -- a new song "Flight into Egypt" in which Quasimodo's saintly statued friends sing to him provides the night's only true laugh thanks to a decapitated singing sculpture.)
Of course, in a musical called The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it's important for the actor portraying the titular character to be able to handle the weight assigned to the role and Michael Arden is giving a Tony-worthy performance on the Paper Mill Stage.  When Arden walks onto the stage at the start of the play, he stands fully erect, transforming into the deformed hunchback before our very eyes, imbuing him with both heartache and strength.  Quasimodo here is portrayed as partially deaf adding another layer to the character that Arden fully takes on successfully.  Although the play abandons the three comedic gargoyles, Quasimodo still finds himself talking to a bevy of statues in the bell tower (all portrayed by the ensemble) and Arden's ability to connect with even this "simplest" and "undeveloped" of characters is an admirable feat.  All that and I never even discussed Arden's magnificent singing voice.  After his first number, I turned to my brother and said, "That guy can really sing."  Just wow.
The set design by Alexander Dodge is ready to go to a Broadway stage right now -- it gets a surprising usefulness out of what is essentially an unchanging set, managing to create the bell tower, the church, a jail, and the streets of Paris without any confusion to the audience as to where we are at a given time.  (The lighting by Howell Binkley certainly aids as well.)  The cast could all certainly make the transition too with Arden and Page, in particular, giving stellar turns as the familial adversaries.   Much like the beginning of the play in which Arden transforms into Quasimodo right before our very eyes, the conclusion of the musical does just the opposite of that, but not before the rest of the cast creates an incredibly memorable moment by "deforming" themselves in a way to create unity with our befallen title character.  I found this to be a stunningly emotionally befitting ending to The Hunchback of Notre Dame -- a musical that with some work on the story and, in turn, some of the new music, would be more than ready to make its way to the Great White Way.

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