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Disney Gets Serious with the Live ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’

La Jolla Playhouse presents a powerful stage version of the movie musical

By Erin Meanley Glenny

This Sunday, I attended the U.S. premiere of The Hunchback of Notre Dame at the La Jolla Playhouse. Patrons of the Playhouse, theater groupies, and friends of the cast turned out in their finest. (On this night, nary a denim pant.) One woman was even dressed as a modern-day Esmeralda.

The show (produced in association with Paper Mill Playhouse, by special arrangement with Disney Theatrical Productions) is more dark, less Disney. Hunchback takes place in sad times (Paris, 1482—between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance), and follows sad outsiders (the “monster” Quasimodo, the persecuted Gypsy Esmeralda, and even Frollo, a clergyman-gone-wrong (who’s the monster now?)).

The show really shines with its powerful vocal talents. The standouts are Michael Arden (Quasimodo—great physicality, too!), Patrick Page (Dom Claude Frollo), and William Michals (Father Dupin, congregant). All three are Broadway veterans. Local choir SACRA/PROFANA provides stunning sounds while essentially playing part of the set—they never leave the stage and in that way represent the cathedral-as-character.

Set designer Alexander Dodge and director Scott Schwartz traveled to Notre Dame in Paris to study the famous structure. They created an imposing world of massive wooden beams, oversized bells, a beautiful stained glass mosaic, and gargoyles galore. Quasimodo was able to climb and hang and swing. Many of the storytelling elements were executed in a way that was simple yet beautiful—how they showed him becoming a “monster,” how they poured hot lava onto a mass of people (I won’t give it away).

Composer Alan Menken (best known for Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast, Newsies, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid) and lyricist Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin, Godspell) gave us the songs (also from the Disney movie, plus a few more). You may remember “Topsy Turvy,” “Sanctuary,” and “God Help the Outcasts.” Given the subject and story, it couldn’t be Newsies or Little Shop, so don’t expect catchy and uptempo. And on that note: The show felt a little slow and long (about 2:30 with 15-minute intermission) but it definitely picked up with the chase scenes and battles. And some of those ballads really took down the house. Overall: powerful, worthy. The audience gave a long standing O at the end.

Through December 14, 2014 in the Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre.

Disney Gets Serious with the Live ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’

Photo by Kevin Berne

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