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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
I didn't see Disney's well-received 1996 animated feature, or recalling reviews of 199 Berlin stage production, but I was overwhelmed by the almost sung-through musical segments as well as by the fine performances in this imposing theatrical entertainment now at the Paper Mill Playhouse (following an engagement at the La Jolla Playhouse, California.)
This massive show is being staged on a spectacular unit set (designed by Alexander Dodge) to evoke the interior of the famed cathedral with the obligatory bell tower as well as the streets of Paris, all under the spell of designer Howard Binkley's atmospheric lighting. Yet it is the soaring score, with its many lustrous arias and the glorious choral interludes — some liturgical and sung in Latin that — that keeps this also top-heavy musical on its mission to be emotionally moving.
With the empowering sonority of a requiem mass coupled with the uncompromising signature of an oratorio, the score is certainly set ablaze and emboldened by a choral ensemble of thirty-two voices. For the Paper Mill production the glorious voices of the Continuo Arts Symphonic Chorus shake the rafters. Appropriately cloaked and perched in lofts on different levels within the massive setting, they, not to mention the six massive tolling bells, create sublime musical support.
The players are happily not in competition with the setting or with the many special effects. But some effects, like Quasimodo spilling vats of hot oil from the tower's walls on the milling and rowdy crowd in the street, need to be re-imagined.
Director Scott Schwartz has done well, particularly in keeping key characters free from stereotypes. Structurally, the show tends to be a little arch with members of the ensemble stepping forth to provide the narrative thread.
But it is hard not to boo and/or hiss the doings of Quasimodo's sleazy uncle, the arch villain Archdeacon Frollo played by a sensational Patrick Page. Frollo wants to free Paris of all foreigners especially the gypsies. He is also a lecher and loser when it comes to seducing the sexy, gorgeous, tempestuous Gypsy dancer Esmeralda (Ciara Renee.)
Renee sashays about and swivels her lovely hips with wild abandon (credit choreographer Chase Brock) and is also adept in physical combat, which she exhibits in her first encounter with the man destined to win her heart. He is the tall and good-looking Captain Phoebus de Martin, as played with swagger and virility by Andrew Samonsky. Their rapturously sung Act II duet "Someday" recalls the era of Romberg and Herbert, a good thing. No one, however, out sings Page whose call for "Hellfire" is one helluva show-stopper. In support, the terrific Erik Liberman is funny and fearsome as the leader of the Gypsies, a band of entertainers whose colorful costumes (credit Alejo Vietti) are in vivid contrast to the drabness of the cathedral cloaks.
The musical, however, rests squarely on the shoulders (no pun intended) of the stupendously talented Michael Arden in the title role. Far from the image that some of us have of chunky, but also poignant, Charles Laughton in the 1939 film, the sweet-faced Arden, despite his facial distortions, is extremely moving as he experiences the yearnings of a young man feeling the pangs of love for the first time. But his tortured soul is most prominently revealed in the stirring aria "Made of Stone."
Quasimodo's resolve to be Esmeralda's protector is tenderly considered as is his need to communicate with the stone gargoyles, saints and assorted statuary with whom he lives and who cleverly take on human form when alone with Quasimodo. It's an impressive visual effect. Best of all and good for a hearty laugh (far and few in this show) is the solace offered to Quasimodo by a beheaded Saint Aphrodisius.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the only stage collaboration between Menken (Disney's The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast ) and Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin ). and it is an impressive one. Whether the somber moods, dark and despairing narrative, and its fervently religious motifs can carry this Disney to glory and success is up for debate. What is not in question for me is that The Hunchback of Notre Dame has been richly endowed with a memorable score.
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