Regional Reviews: Phoenix
It's a shame this musical has not had a New York run, as, even though there are a few shortcomings, there is still a lot to like in the rich, choral score by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz and Peter Parnell's book which, fortunately, eliminates all of the cartoony aspects and the sugary upbeat nature of the film for a more serious tone that is in line with Hugo's novel. With good leads, an impressive and huge ensemble, and beautiful creative aspects that perfectly instill the elements of romance and intrigue into the musical, Zao Theatre's production, which I believe is only the second to play in the Phoenix area, is quite good.
Set in and around the famous Notre Dame cathedral in 15th-century Paris, the story follows the deformed Quasimodo who, held captive by the deacon Dom Claude Frollo, lives high up in the cathedral's bell tower. From his bird's eye view he observes the Paris sights and people far below him and yearns to escape the cathedral. When he goes below to the street to partake in the lively Feast of Fools celebration, he finds himself made fun of by the cruel revelers yet helped by the kind, gypsy girl Esmeralda and the dashing Captain Phoebus. However, Frollo, like Quasimodo and Phoebus, finds himself drawn to the gypsy girl. When she doesn't return his affections, Frollo, conflicted by his feelings, makes it his mission to destroy her, her fellow gypsies, and anyone that gets in his way. Can the deformed bell ringer save Esmeralda and himself from Frollo's evil plan?
While Menken and Schwartz kept the popular tunes from their animated film score, they've added many new songs that flesh out the backstory of several characters and provide more sung narrative. There is also an abundance of lush choral pieces throughout, which sound superb sung by the over 40-person cast in this production under C.J. O'Hara's expert music direction. However, as good as the new music is, the character of Quasimodo gets the short end of the musical stick in that he has very little new to sing. He only gets two new solo pieces, both of which are very short. It does seem a bit odd that the title character is reduced to an almost supporting character. Also, while Parnell's book does a good job in fleshing out the characters and adheres more to the original novel than the animated film, it is still a bit melodramatic at times. However, the theatrical conceit the stage adaptation uses of having the story be a play within a play works quite well and the bittersweet ending, which is comparable to Hugo's original ending instead of the animated film, makes for a more fitting and realistic conclusion.
Zao's cast is very good. Nicholas Hambruch evokes sincerity and strength as the lonely and obedient Quasimodo, while, as Frollo, Andrew McKee effectively portrays both power and control along with a sense of concern and uncertainty in relation to Frollo's conflicted feelings for Esmeralda. Taryn Cantrell is full of passion and fire as the feisty gypsy and, as Phoebus, Zac Bushman has charm, strength and confidence. Bryan Stewart is playful and mischievous as the gypsy leader Clopin. All five leads have very good singing voices, though the sound mix, while the best I've heard yet at a Zao show, does give some of their voices an unfortunate slightly muffled tone.
The production also features a main ensemble of nine performersRobert Andrews, Rebecca Bryce, Kayla Cook, Karson Cook, Alicia Ferrin, Brianne Gobeski, Daniel Miga, Asher Sheppard, and Scott Simswho portray the gargoyle sculptures that Quasimodo talks to and they also provide the majority of the narration. They all do an excellent job. The large additional ensemble deliver some incredibly lush and effective choral moments, including a sensational "Entr'acte," where they surround the entire audience with a wall of sound.
Director Mickey Bryce does a very good job in getting across the show within a show aspect and ensuring the more melodramatic moments of the story don't get too exaggerated. He makes good use of the entire playing area, which includes a few sections in front of and on the sides of the audience. He also has staged the entire production effectively on Mike Sanders' sensational set design, which features large arches and embellishments to evoke the Notre Dame cathedral as well as two large towers on the sides of the stage to portray the bell towers that Quasimodo climbs.
While the stage musical version of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame breaks the tradition of their past screen to stage adaptations, in that in doesn't adhere to the family friendly nature of the hit film, it is a rewarding and moving musical. Like the film, it both starts and ends with the intriguing question, "who is the monster, and who is the man?" In Zao's rewarding production, that is a question you'll most likely be contemplating both during the show and for days to come.
Zao Theatre's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, through November 17, 2018, with performances at Centerstage Church, 550 South Ironwood Drive, Apache Junction AZ. You can get information and tickets by visiting www.zaotheatre.com. Tickets can also be ordered by calling 602-320-3275.
Directed by Mickey Bryce