Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
La Jolla Playhouse

Ciara Renée and Cast
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, making its U. S. debut at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse (produced in association with Paper Mill Playhouse) through December 14, has what audiences want. There's classic source material from the author of Les Misérables, music and lyrics by two current kings of Broadway, a book by a noted playwright, an excellent production by cast and creative team alike, and at least one potential star-making performance.

So, why did I walk away with a sour taste in my mouth?

It would be easy to dismiss this version of Hunchback as a souped up "adventure" much like one might experience on the Radiator Springs Racers ride at Disney's California Adventure. But, as former president Richard Nixon once put it, "We could do that, but it would be wrong."

Wrong because, despite the show's Disney connection (a 1996 animated film serves as the basis for the stage version, which is financed, in part, by Disney Theatricals), this production goes to a fair length to not look or feel like "the Disney version." Scenic designer Alexander Dodge's utilitarian but effective set focuses on Notre Dame Cathedral as a dark and foreboding place. There's not a projection to be found, and the film's chattering gargoyles have been replaced with the voices of the talented ensemble, trading off lines. Howell Binkley's lighting design follows suit and never allows the stage picture to become murky. Costume designer Alejo Vietti's work is simple, done mostly in light colors to contrast with the set, and in period after a fashion. With a large cast, fourteen musicians, and an on-stage chorus (San Diego's youthful ensemble Sacra/Profana) it's a substantial feat for sound designer Gareth Owen to keep things balanced—and mostly he does.

Scott Schwartz's direction de-emphasizes the special effects and focuses on the performers. Yes, there is magic to do, but the magical elements don't leave audiences gasping for air. Instead, we see Quasimodo (Michael Arlen) become the Hunchback by putting on and taking off his hump at both ends of the show. We see his guardian, Dom Claude Frollo (Patrick Page), struggling to do right by Quasimodo, even though in Frollo's doctrinaire mind "doing right" means locking him up in the Notre Dame Cathedral's bell tower. We see Esmeralda (Ciara Renée), the gypsy enchantress, as fully aware of her power over men such as the handsome Captain Phoebus de Martin (Andrew Samonsky), her commitment to her persecuted community, and her feelings for the three suitors who simultaneously are pursuing her.

It's Alan Menkin's music that provides the Disney touch. Of the eighteen songs in the show, eight are taken directly from the animated film and the other ten do not clash with them. That style, similar to music Mr. Menkin provided for Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin, is one so associated with the Disney brand that the Hunchback songs could never divorce themselves from it. Stephen Schwartz's Wicked had not yet surfaced when he wrote many of these songs, but his lyrics for the two shows are similarly clever.

The new element in this production is Peter Parnell's book and it is also the element that shows the weakness of the concept. Mr. Parnell takes novelist Victor Hugo's tale of privilege and societal prejudice and tries to make it relevant to contemporary audiences. But, 21st century Southern California is not 19th century Paris, and so the tossed-away contemporary colloquialisms Mr. Parnell inserted ring false.

Admirably, Mr. Parnell also tries to humanize a collection of characters that might well be played as types. Doing so smashes Hugo's method, which was to work with the types, rather than against them, and letting the audience enjoy seeing good triumph over evil or weep when evil triumphs over good. Plenty of this sort of dramaturgy opens weekly at movie theatres in the form of big-budget action films with lots of special effects.

But, where the book is working to add complexity and make the tale a personal one for audiences, the music is working to simplify emotional content. The two elements pull audiences in different directions simultaneously, making them feel manipulated in the process.

The cast, from the leads to the ensemble, performs admirably. Ms. Renée's character carries the emotional weight of the story, and you know that she's up to the task from the first time she appears. It's a performance of such confidence that audiences will not soon forget it. As her suitors, Mr. Arden's Quasimodo is nicely balanced in portraying naïveté, heroism, and desire. Mr. Samonsky balances ardor with career-minded practicality. He's handsome and he knows it, but his feelings for Esmeralda are genuine, even if they interfere with his plans to escape the dangers of soldiering by joining the Cathedral guard. Mr. Page, an expert villain, seemed still to be working out his character on opening night. At one point, I thought he was trying to insert some Richard III-like glee into the rigid Frollo, but the insipid lines he was often given weigh him down. To his credit, it takes an actor of Mr. Page's stature and experience to make such lines work and most often they do.

This production clearly has aspirations beyond its runs in La Jolla and at the Paper Mill Playhouse next March. It has a tough problem to solve: how to work with a melodic and accessible score whose intentions nevertheless contradict those of the rest of the production. Then again, if audience tastes in entertainment are currently running to manufactured, perhaps few will notice the disparity.

Through December 14 at the Mandell Weiss Theatre on the University of California, San Diego, campus. Tickets may be purchased at or by calling or (858) 550-1010.

La Jolla Playhouse, in association with Paper Mill Playhouse, by special arrangement with Disney Theatrical Productions, presents The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Book by Peter Parnell, Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Directed by Scott Schwartz, with Choreographer Chase Brock, Music Supervisor/Arranger Michael Kosarin, Orchestrator Michael Starobin, Scenic Designer Alexander Dodge, Costume Designer Alejo Vietti, Lighting Designer Howell Binkley, and Sound Designer Gareth Owen.

The cast includes Michael Arden, Erik Liberman, Patrick Page, Ciara Renée, Andrew Samonsky, and ensemble members Lucas Coleman, Julian Decker, Mary Joe Duggan, Ian Patrick Gibb, William Thomas Hodgson, Beth Kirkpatrick, Samantha Massell, Neal Mayer, Nora Menken, William Michals, Anise Ritchie, Vincent Rodriguez, Richard Ruiz, and Brian Smolin.

Photo: Kevin Berne

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie

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