Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Dark and Beautiful Bells of "Notre Dame"

Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Michael Arden leads the cast of Disney's first-rate Hunchback of Notre Dame at Paper Mill Playhouse.

Some readers may find the following statement blasphemous, but I stand by it: Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not a good movie. No matter how glorious the score may be (and it is indeed glorious), the animated film embodies a lot of the problems that occur when the Mouse House attempts to bend more complex material to its family friendly house style. Tonally and emotionally, the film doesn't work, either on its own merits or especially as an adaptation of Victor Hugo's dark, morally complicated novel.

Which makes the stage adaptation of that very same film currently running at Paper Mill Playhouse all the more remarkable. This Hunchback fixes virtually all of the problems with the animated film while augmenting its strongest feature, Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz's sweeping score. This adaptation may not be perfect, but it is the most thematically interesting piece Disney Theatricals has ever produced, and is quite possibly the company's best musical to date.

Right from the start, the show makes clear it will be a darker, more complex version of this tale. In addition to restoring antagonist Claude Frollo to his position as Archdeacon - the film portrayed him as a judge to avoid being seen as a critique of the church - the musical's prologue also provides us with much more detail about his background. This not only creates a far greater understanding of Frollo's motivations, but makes the character simultaneously more sympathetic and more monstrous, as his often deplorable actions can no longer be written off as the ravings of a cartoon villain.

Frollo raises Quasimodo, the "half formed" hunchback of the title, in seclusion deep inside the Norte Dame cathedral, forbidding his charge from going outside in order to protect him from the jeers and mockery of a callous public. On the day of the Feast of Fools, the one day a year when gypsies are allowed to roam the city streets without punishment, Quasimodo sneaks out of the cathedral only to meet and fall in love with the beautiful Esmeralda, whose kind soul and beguiling ways also attract the attention of Captain Phoebus and the lustful Frollo.

Peter Parnell's book has no problem throwing out large segments of the film in favor of plot points that hew more closely to the source material, almost invariably for the better. Gone are the talking, singing gargoyles that serve as Quasimodo's friends/confidantes in the film, along with most of the movie's more overtly comedic sequences. Parnell does allow some laughs in order to prevent the show from collapsing under the weight of its own seriousness, but unlike most Disney musicals this show is clearly aimed at adults.

Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz have augmented their liturgical-inspired film score with equally grand new material, all of which sounds especially glorious when sung by the full choir which occupies the upstage portion of Alexander Dodge's multi-tiered set. Menken's richly layered work is occasionally undermined by Michael Starobin's sometimes questionable orchestrations, which can sound bright and cheery when the lyrics and melody are quite the opposite. But overall this Hunchback sounds every bit as epic as movie fans could hope, and there is no denying the score's raw emotional power.

The casting of the central trio of Quasimodo, Frollo, and Esmeralda is pitch perfect, taking already strong material and deepening it through the power of their performances. Michael Arden is a revelation as the partially deaf Quasimodo, his full commitment to the character's physicality and mannerisms completely selling the hunchback's deformity despite minimal makeup. Arden also sounds fantastic, with a rich, full tenor that avoids the shrillness that sometimes plagues contemporary musical theatre actors. His rendition of Quasimodo's anthem "Out There" is particularly lovely, expertly sung and acted with such pureness that you can't help but get swept away by the moment.

Patrick Page and his booming bass were tailor-made to play Frollo, and the actor's unwavering conviction to every syllable he utters is positively transfixing. It's difficult to label his Frollo a villain, both due to the increased understanding provided by the aforementioned prologue and Page's incredibly nuanced performance, but he is often terrifying and the lengths to which he's willing to go to get what he wants are horrific. It's a shame Frollo's big number "Hellfire," easily the film's most memorable thanks to its unsettling chord progression and some absolutely stunning animation, doesn't land with quite the same effectiveness onstage despite Page's best efforts. Starobin's simplified orchestrations remove most of the song's bite, and sound designer Gareth Owen could stand to turn down the choir's mics so that Page's voice is more prominent throughout.

As Esmeralda, Ciara Renee takes a character in danger of becoming a plot device and turns her into a fully formed human being. Beautiful and exotic, Renee oozes confidence and sexuality without ever becoming vulgar or trashy, and she manages to genuinely connect with the men in the show without appearing to manipulate them or lead them on. She is particularly lovely during her Act I duet with Arden called "Top of the World," which solidifies Quasimodo and Esmeralda's relationship and sets up the story's deeply moving conclusion (fair warning: it's nowhere near as cheery as the animated film). Andrew Samonsky is serviceable as Phoebus and Erik Liberman has some nice moments as the gypsies' leader Clopin, but the show ultimately belongs to Arden, Page, and Renee.

Director Scott Schwartz - the son of lyricist Stephen Schwartz - directs the show with a firm hand that keeps things moving without sacrificing character moments; this is the only adaptation of an animated Disney film that doesn't feel unnecessarily padded out. Furthermore, the younger Schwartz's decision to stage the show using only techniques available during the story's fifteenth century setting makes for a refreshing change of pace from the technical wizardry often on display in such big budget musicals. He lets the audience's imagination do a lot of the work, which makes the piece more theatrical and more cinematic, as your mind provides the sweeping vistas and grand visuals Schwartz couldn't possibly achieve onstage. He makes excellent use of Dodge's gorgeous set, which suggests the cathedral and its surroundings without getting bogged down in producing an exact replica of it.

As of right now, Disney has not announced any plans for Hunchback beyond its current engagement at Paper Mill. The show is certainly strong enough to transfer to Broadway; Menken and Schwartz's score deserves to be heard live by as many people as possible, and the central performances are all top notch. But this dark and morally complex tale is decidedly off-brand for the family-friendly company, which means there's a very real possibility the show's professional life ends when this run concludes on April 5th. So fans of the score and anyone interested in seeing what happens when Disney Theatricals puts its considerable resources behind riskier artistic fare owes it to themselves to catch this production before its too late. This show is definitely worth the trek.


  1. "Tonally and emotionally, the film doesn't work, either on its own merits or especially as an adaptation of Victor Hugo's dark, morally complicated novel."

    I'm afraid I must completely disagree with that statement. The Disney film may not be as dark as the novel, but that doesn't mean it's not dark or morally complicated. Frollo may not be a deacon in this film and he may not go as far as he does in the book towards Esmeralda, but the film subtly makes it clear he has an unhealthy sexual obsession about her. That's the whole point of the song "Hellfire" in the film. He knows his feelings are wrong but he attempts to justify them.

    And I honestly didn't mind the gargoyles. As a child I found them funny, particularly Jason Alexander as Hugo. Then again, as a child, I was frequently exposed to Jason Alexander since my parents always watched every new episode of Seinfeld.

    1. I notice you say you found the gargoyles funny "as a child," which implies that maybe you aren't so impressed with them now. Their presence and the forced happy ending are at direct odds with the source material and some of the darker moments you mention, which is why I feel the film doesn't work.

      I rewatched it about a year ago just to see if my initial disdain for it had changed, but it hasn't. I appreciate what they were trying to do a bit more, but I don't think they did it well.

  2. It's been a while since I've seen the movie, but I do think the gargoyles would still have me laughing. For the movie, I think you at least give Disney credit for keeping the story as dark as they could. There's absolutely no way they could have been 100% faithful to the novel and make it a child friendly movie. There's just no way.