By Charlene Baldridge
Opening night arrived Nov. 9 with many assurances that the critic — making her way through a pre-curtain crush of revelry, press packet in hand — would love the show. These assurances and the ensuing vociferous response to every musical number might as well have been accompaniment to football attended by well-dressed fans intent on proving they know the game.
The game — the U.S. premiere of a musical based on Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” continuing at La Jolla Playhouse through Dec. 14 — was well-conceived and splendid to watch, ever so much more grand than the pre-game chalk talk led us to believe. However, no matter how well coached, the players seemed exhausted and at the end of their rope, so to speak. (Pun intended.)
“Hunchback” is produced by special arrangement with Disney Theatrical Group in association with Paper Mill Playhouse. The creative roster is rife with big names — composer Alan Menken, who wrote the through-composed score for both the stage musical and the 1996 Disney film; Stephen Schwartz, lyricist then and now; and Peter Parnell, who provided a new, more adult book, sans the cutesy Gargoyles that plagued the film. Parnell also restores the villainous Frollo (Patrick Page) to his liturgical frock and shocking licentiousness.
A 12-member singing/acting ensemble embodies the cathedral flock of gypsies and Parisian citizens, or “Congregants.” In addition, the work is scored for a chorale, here the magnificent SACRA/PROFANA, seated and standing in recessed, elevated stalls at the back of the cathedral. Locally based, they number 32 for each performance. Other musical forces include a fine 14-member orchestra, conducted by Brent-Alan Huffman. Michael Starobin is the orchestrator.
Frollo has raised his dead brother’s hunchback child, Quasimodo (Michael Arden), whom he terms a monster. Quasimodo is locked away from other humans, ensconced for his own safety in the cathedral tower with the bells that he rings and a cadre of stone friends who listen to and advise him. Frollo visits Quasimodo once a day, bringing communion, fruit and stern admonitions.
The status quo is forever upset when the boy, on the brink of manhood, leaves the tower and descends to the street where the annual Feast of Fools is underway. Guileless, he is chosen King of Fools and is rescued from his cruel tormentors by a beautiful gypsy named Esmeralda (Ciara Renée). In addition to Quasimodo and Frollo, Esmeralda enchants Phoebus (Andrew Samonsky), the cathedral captain of the guard, setting up a love quadrangle that ends in tragedy. Spurned by Esmeralda, Frollo imprisons her and Phoebus, persecutes the gypsies, and orders their extermination.
Archetypal in the extreme, Frollo epitomizes villainy and lust; Phoebus, gallantry; and Quasimodo, a certain purity and innocence. All worship beauty and goodness as represented by Esmeralda. To a certain extent, so does Clopin (excellent Erik Liberman), King of the Gypsies.
Director Scott Schwartz does what he can to make the characters human, and unsurprisingly the audience favorite is Quasimodo. Overall the singing is often nasal, lacking in the rich, more operatic quality that would better suit the music. Dare I point out that quality is possessed by William Michals, who portrays Father Dupin and understudies Frollo?
With Stephen Schwartz’s finely crafted lyrics, Menken’s songs, many of them from the film, include “The Bells of Notre Dame,” “Out There,” Sanctuary,” “Hellfire,” “The Court of Miracles,” “Someday” and “Made of Stone.” The new Entr’acte written for the choir is much admired.
—Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. Her book “San Diego, Jewel of the California Coast” (Northland Publishing) is currently available in bookstores. She can be reached at email@example.com.