Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
But the potential was always there. The new musical version, now playing at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, is encouragingly "based on the Victor Hugo novel and songs from the Disney film"; Disney's book has been jettisoned for something truer to the source material, but the stage production keeps the Disney songs which have always worked. The result is much closer to what Disney should have done from the start. It isn't quite there yet, but we now have the makings of a successful musical.
Without doubt, what works best are Quasimodo, Archdeacon Frollo, and the severely dysfunctional relationship between them. John McGinty transforms himself on stage into the disfigured title character (a delightful theatrical momentthe hunched back is part of a vest he ties around himself, it isn't him). Frollo has kept the young man in the cathedral from infancy; the bells have made him deaf; the isolation has made him imaginative. Now the talking statues make sense. Surrounded only by stone figures, Quasimodo has made them his friends; they speak sign language with him (while Frollo, his guardian, pointedly does not) and give him advice which is clearly the product of his own head. McGinty's signing is full of hope, and he's matched by Dino Nicandros, who provides the character with a soaring singing voice.
Mark Jacoby plays Frollo with an understanding that Frollo is not simply a villain but the most complex character in the piece. A prologue to the play softens his moral rigidity, and Jacoby makes it clear that although a lot of Frollo's actions and words are distasteful to us, they come from a place of what Frollo sees as obedience to God. The song "Hellfire," in which Frollo is tormented by his lustful feelings for the gypsy Esmeralda, was stunningly out of the place in the Disney movie. Now, they've built the first act of a musical around it.
One can't let a discussion of Frollo pass by without a brief acknowledgement of how timely this musical feels, as Frollo's beliefs reflect some of the positions taken on contentious issues in American politics today. His distaste for the gypsy immigrants, in particular, makes you think that humans have been having these same debates for at least 500 years. And, in "Hellfire," Frollo transitions from recognizing his sinful thoughts for Esmeralda to concluding that she is tempting him into sin and must be punished for ita leap similar (albeit on a grander scale) to current school dress codes which are being challenged because they punish girls for dressing in a way that is "distracting" to boys.
While the musical has completely realized the Disney film's potential when it comes to Quasimodo and Frollo, there is more work to be done on the rest of the characters. Esmeralda is too perfect. Fiery-tempered, willing to go toe-to-toe with anyone (including Frollo and the gypsy king Clopin), putting others before herself, and (thanks to Cassie Simone) in possession of a lovely singing voice, she's an almost-ethereal creature out of place in this world of flawed individuals. (She even tries to learn a few signs from Quasimodo, which is very sweet, but, on reflection, probably incorrect. In retrospect, I don't think Quasimodo actually signs; I certainly can't think of anyone who would have taught him. Quasimodo signs the way hearing characters sing: it is the voice of his soul. Signing shouldn't be a plot point, even a small one.) But much worse than Esmeralda's perfection is Phoebus's lack of any redeeming qualities. One would happily settle for a cardboard Disney prince in lieu of this spineless jerk who seems to be open to gypsy immigration only because of the low-cost and plentiful sex it provides. When Phoebus and Esmeralda have a second act love song in front of Quasimodo, Quasimodo's reactions at being so obviously overlooked are infinitely more interesting than the lovers themselves. (That he then gets his own Eponine moment in a verse himself is actually unnecessary; Quasimodo doesn't need a voice for this, McGinty's face and physicality tell you all you need to know.)
The show's book, by Peter Parnell, provides a solid new framework for the Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz score, but more work needs to be done. In addition to Esmeralda and Phoebus, Clopin needs more direction (he turns on a dime, for no good reason, between angry and accommodating). There is also a fair amount of narration to move the plot along. This, combined with a series of self-description songs, suggests the show needs to focus a bit more on showing rather than telling. But there's so much they have right with this production. If they fix it, they could have something really special.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame runs through October 9, 2016, at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd, La Mirada, CA. For tickets and information, see www.lamiradatheatre.com
La Mirada Theatre and McCoy Rigby Entertainment present The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz; Book by Peter Parnell. Based on the novel by Victor Hugo with songs from the Disney film. Scenic Design Stephen Gifford; Costume Design Marcy Froehlich; Lighting Design Jared A. Sayeg; Sound Design Josh Bessom; Hair & Wig Design Katie McCoy; Props Coordinator Terry Hanrahan; Casting Director Julia Flores; Sound Effects Joe Caruso, Jr. & Emma Bramble; Technical Director Michael Roman; General Management Ana Lara, Theresa Flemming and Patti McCoy Jacob; Production Stage Manager John W. Calder, III; Publicist David Elzer, Demand PR. Fight Director John B. WIlliford; Music Director Dennis Castellano; Choreographed by Dana Solimando; Directed by Glenn Casale.