Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Moonlight Stage Productions
Review by David Dixon | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's review of Much Ado About Nothing

David Burnham and Lance Arthur Smith
Photo by Ken Jacques
Walt Disney Pictures might be known as a family-friendly movie company, but people sometimes forget how intense their films can be for both kids and adults. Classics like The Lion King, Bambi and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs don't shy away from stories and scenes that are grim and heartbreaking. One of Disney's darkest animated films is the adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It's a movie with haunting music and songs composed by Alan Menken with a villain, Claude Frollo, who suffers from uncontrollable lust and commits senseless murder. The live stage version is even grimmer, though sticking fairly close to the original source material by Hugo. Moonlight Stage Productions' version is consistently and dramatically effective, in no small part because of Menken's melodies.

In the 1400s, a loyal man of faith, Dom Claude Frollo (Lance Arthur Smith), has a falling out with his joyous but sinful brother Jehan (Max DeLoach). Tragic circumstances lead the Archdeacon, Claude, to raise Jehan's deformed son Quasimodo (David Burnham) as his own child. When Quasimodo grows up, he wants to leave the bell tower at the Notre-Dame Cathedral, where he lives, and spend time in the outside world. He decides to attend an event, the Feast of Fools, and falls for a beautiful gypsy woman, Esmeralda (Janaya Mahealani Jones). Claude and his captain of the guard Phoebus de Martin (Patrick Cummings) also start to develop feelings for this mysterious Esmeralda.

Menken's music, featuring songs with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, enhances many of the situations that occur in the production at the Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista. Songs such as "The Bells of Notre Dame," "Rest and Recreation," and "Made of Stone" feature dramatic music and lyrics that blend in well with the gothic tone of the story. There are also songs such as "Topsy Turvy" and "Top of the World" that add some levity and a bit of optimism to the story. The only number that doesn't have a lot of buildup is "Rhythm of the Tambourine." When Esmeralda is introduced during the number, Quasimodo, Claude and Phoebus all start to become infatuated with her. Seeing the three of them develop feelings for Esmeralda at first sight feels rushed compared to the film, yet their interactions with her are compelling to watch and experience. Complementing the power of Menken's work is Elan McMahan, who is both the musical director and conductor of the evening. In addition to leading the orchestra, she also works with a 22-member choir to present musical numbers that are beautiful and induce goosebumps. One particular song that showcases the talents of the orchestra and choir is the "Entr'acte," which includes a few of Menken's tunes with lyrics in Latin. Each of the stars is more than capable of the vocal demands in this musically rich show.

The production has many excellent performers and features strong singing from Richard Bermudez as the king of the Gypsies, Clopin Trouillefou, but the adaptation is focused on four central characters. None of them are truly happy people, owing to incidents in their past and personal conflicts that continue to affect them. Burnham, Jones and Cummings powerfully express their pain, as well as the hope that they will have a better future. While they all sing and perform with conviction, Smith gives the most captivating performance as Claude. Smith plays him as a man who justifies everything he does, no matter how cruel and heartless. His baritone voice in songs such as "Hellfire" and "Esmeralda" perfectly expresses Claude's personality. At the same time, Smith shows how much Claude has grown to care about Quasimodo, which makes him an occasionally sympathetic character.

In addition to the music and the performances, the visual storytelling helps to display the grand scale of Quasimodo's journey. Producing Artistic Director Steven Glaudini stages the conversations from Peter Parnell's book with a degree of tension as the problems with the characters continue to grow out of control. Jean-Yves Tessier's lighting, Stephen Gifford's church-inspired scenery and Janet Swenson's costumes feel strongly influenced by the Disney movie, yet with enough different visual details to feel fresh. In addition, Roger Castellano's choreography highlights the free-spirited nature of the gypsies. Timothy Babb's projections, at times however, show images and information that appear redundant, such as an amulet that Esmeralda gives Quasimodo. On the other hand, there are instances when the projections create a sense of grandeur such as the opening introduction to the cathedral.

Glaudini smartly tackles serious subject matter and does justice to the songwriting. His staging is a very impactful interpretation.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, through September 1, 2018, at Moonlight Stage Productions, 1200 Vale Terrace Dr., Vista CA. Performances are Sundays through Saturdays. Tickets start at $17.00 and can be purchased online at or by phone at 760-724-2110.