Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Bay Area Musicals
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Clay David
Photo by Ben Krantz
The Disney oeuvre includes many dark moments: the death of Mufasa in The Lion King, long stretches of Pinocchio (kids in cages ring a contemporary bell?), and perhaps the darkest of all, and source of many a childhood nightmare, the death of Bambi's mother. Ultimately, though, each of those stories manages a happy ending. Simba assumes his father's throne, Pinocchio is turned into a real boy, and Bambi becomes a father and Prince of the Forest. (Retroactive spoiler alert.)

But The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the musical based on the Disney film which is in turn based on the famed novel by Victor Hugo, takes its audience to the very darkest corners of the Mind of the Mouse, and no one escapes unscathed. If you come to this show—the finale of Bay Area Musicals' 2017-2018 season—looking for a happy resolution, you will have to take heart in the minor comfort that not everyone dies by the time the curtain falls.

It's fitting that this production is staged in the Mission District's Victoria Theatre, for the surrounding neighborhood is filled with immigrants and "outcasts"—not unlike the vision of 15th century Paris that is the setting of Hunchback. "Criminals, foreigners and gypsies," the villain Frollo (Clay David) exclaims, have "infested" Paris (thanks to "borders as porous as a sieve") and must be driven out by any means possible. Remind you of anyone?

Yet it is Frollo himself who harbors the ultimate outcast: his dead brother's son Quasimodo (Alex Rodriguez), whom he has locked away in the belfry where he is slowly being deafened by the ringing of the giant bells. The cathedral is Quasimodo's entire universe—until the Feast of Fools comes and Quasimodo sneaks out of the church for a day, and meets the gypsy Esmeralda (Alysia Beltran) who suggests he enter the contest for "King of the Fools," the criteria for which is being the "ugliest person in France." Thanks for the vote of confidence, Esme. (The two-level set, by Bay Area Musical's artistic director Matthew McCoy, is at its best and most colorful during this segment.) Chastened by the treatment he receives at the hands of the mob, and reproached by Frollo for straying, Quasimodo (whose name translates as "half-formed") retreats back to his bell tower, vowing never to leave it. But thanks to the evil machinations of Frollo, danger and despair will come to his sanctuary, and force him into the secret corners of Paris in an attempt to save Esmeralda and her fellow gypsies from the font of Frollo's rage, whose source is repressed sexual desire. (Frollo, it seems, would be right at home in the modern Vatican.)

In the book by Peter Parnell, the plot lacks the simple story arc of so many Disney movies. In, for example, The Little Mermaid, we know exactly what Ariel wants and what she must do to get it. (Like Quasimodo, she desires an escape from a confining world.) Here, the story is a little muddier and Quasimodo's dreams are less clear: Does he desire escape alone? Or is it love he seeks? Or merely simple acceptance? This lack of clarity, and the chaos of so many forces impinging on Quasimodo's hopes—Frollo, the gypsy community, the monarchy, and xenophobia in general—combine to prevent this musical from ever really gaining narrative traction.

Despite this, there are several solid performances here, and one that rescues the show from getting mired in complexity.

I was slow to warm to Alex Rodriguez as Quasimodo, but by the end of the evening (once he'd lost the severe stutter of his early lines), he had shown us the courageous core at the heart of a man who had been vilified and trod upon since his illegitimate birth. His strong voice is filled with emotion and longing, perfect for this role. Likewise, Alysia Beltran's sweet soprano is delightful, but she needs significant improvement in her acting skills, often coming across stiff and stagey in her line readings.

The ensemble is also wonderful, delivering powerful choruses, well-defined harmonies, and appropriate support during solo number by the leads. They are equal to the imaginative choreography by Matthew McCoy, and jell well as a group. (Though I'd like to see costume designer Brooke Jennings do something a little more spectacular for the talking and singing gargoyles of Quasimodo's fantasies. The faux-stone finished hooded tunics with tiny cat-like ears just don't cut it.)

But the standout in the cast is clearly Clay David's Frollo. He brings a delicious sense of menace to the stage every time he enters. His rhythms are spot-on, never rushing his lines, and the dissonance between his odd affection for Quasimodo and his disgust for the hideous creation of his brother's sinfulness are marvelous to watch. Every time he's on stage, your attention can't help but be drawn to him; he is the engine of the plot, and David keeps that engine revving at just the perfect speed.

Despite some minor technical difficulties at the performance I attended (odd lighting cues, and props that flew in and out at unexpected times), the production is well done. (Especially one of the final moments that suggests the pouring of hot lead on an unsuspecting throng.) It's just that the show itself—and a score that recycles themes composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz have used in previous work for Disney—lacks the narrative drive that is required to fully engage an audience.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, through August 5, 2018, at the Victoria Theatre at 2961 16th Street in San Francisco's Mission District. Tickets range from $35-$80, and are available now by calling 415-340-2207 or visiting