By Ruth Ross
For theatergoers—myself included—who feared that Paper Mill Playhouse's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (produced by special arrangement with the Disney Theatrical Group) would be a family- and kid-friendly version of the great Victor Hugo novel, I have good news to report: Under the direction of Scott Schwartz and with a book by Peter Parnell, music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, the production manages to preserve the dark themes of what it means to be an outcast, the destructiveness of sexual obsession and the redemptive power of love and presents them in a lavish, elegant production that is both heartrending, thought-provoking and entertaining. (Above: Michael Arden as Quasimodo and Ciara Renée as Esmeralda. Photo by Jerry Dalia.)
Although this adaptation is based on Disney's 1996 animated film, Paper Mill's Hunchback not only honors Hugo's brick of a novel but also probes the psychological complexities of its characters. It ran last fall at California's La Jolla Playhouse (this production's co-producers), and several principal actors originated their roles there.
The hunchback of the story is Quasimodo (his name means "half-formed"), the "monster" offspring of a gypsy mother and Jehan, brother of the cathedral's archdeacon Dom Claude Frollo. When Jehan dies, the child is kept hidden away by Dom Frollo in the belfry of Notre Dame, where he is charged with ringing the huge bells. A grown-up Quasimodo sneaks outside on January 6, 1482, the Feast of Fools, a day when criminals cannot be arrested and the despised gypsies can sing and dance in the square in front of the church. There, he, along with Dom Frollo and Phoebus de Martin, former soldier/now captain of the cathedral guards, meet and fall in love with the sultry gypsy Esmeralda. When she rejects Frollo's sexual advances, he has her arrested for witchcraft and sentenced to be burned at the stake, but Quasimodo rescues her and takes her away to sanctuary in the cathedral belfry. From there he hurls molten lead down on the besieging soldiers. What subsequently happens is decidedly not "happily ever after," but a natural, powerful outcome of all that has occurred before. (Above: Michael Arden as Quasimodo with the company. Photo by Matthew Murphy.)
Taking its cues from the medieval period in which the drama is set, the production references the era's mystery plays, liturgical dramas and Catholic rituals, all of which used dramatic narratives to communicate with the illiterate populace. The entire cast acts as the congregation, plays various characters and narrates some of the action taken from the book to provide exposition. There are even a group of gargoyles that Quasimodo talks to as he struggles with his inner thoughts and desires. All of this takes place on a magnificent set designed by Alexander Dodge and lit by Howell Binkley that evokes the grand cathedral of Paris, along with the streets and alleys around it, mostly by the addition of banners, mobile staircases and moveable railings that even serve as prison bars. The effect is heightened by the addition of the Continuo Arts Symphonic Chorus, who chant hymn-like passages from their perch on platforms placed above the acting space. (Above: Patrick Page as Dom Claude Frollo. Photo by Kevin Berne.)
The accomplished acting of the principal actors (nay, the entire company) gives this Hunchback its dramatic and psychological power. With his sonorous voice and commanding stage presence, Patrick Page's Dom Frollo is a self-righteous, arrogant prig, not the mustache-twirling villain of the animated film but a man who quite finds himself undone by the force of his (suppressed) sexual desires. There are times we almost feel sorry for him. As Quasimodo, the handsome Michael Arden morphs before our eyes (à la The Elephant Man) into a hunchback with one eye, a creature considered so ugly that he is hidden away (like The Phantom of the Opera) in the belfry at the top of the church. His glorious voice and gentle manner belie his ugly appearance, especially when he sings of his yearning to be "Out There" in the city or his delight at showing Esmeralda his view from "The Top of the World."
Andrew Samonsky is a very handsome Captain Phoebus de Martin, who falls hard for the gypsy girl, as well, and is really the only one of the three who has a chance with her. Rounding out this love quartet and the object of the men's desire, Ciara Renée's Esmeralda sings and dances sinuously, seductively and with abandon while conveying the heartbreak at being mistreated and hated merely for being a gypsy. (That such treatment still exists is sad and sobering evidence that "the more things change, the more they stay the same.") When she and Phoebus sing of a better world ("Someday"), we are reminded of West Side Story's iconic "Somewhere." (Above: Andrew Samonsky and Ciara Renée. Photo by Matthew Murphy.)
These references to other productions are not meant to diminish Menken and Schwartz's score; it is in the finest tradition of American musical theater, and thoroughly appropriate to this epic tale. The opening number, "The Bells of Notre Dame," sets the somber tone, and repetitions of Kyrie Eleison ("God Have Mercy") by the chorus remind us of the liturgical setting. Meanwhile, the rowdy songs and dances of the gypsies and peasants highlight the "Topsy Turvy" aspect of the Feast of Fools. Chase Brock's choreography suits each world, sedate and slow for the church scenes, and complex and wild for the street.
Interpreting the efforts of Musical Supervisor Michael Kosarin and Orchestrator Michael Starobin, Brent-Alan Huffman and his musicians provide terrific accompaniment for these remarkable goings-on. Kudos also to Alejo Vietti for magnificent costume design, Gareth Owen for evocative sound (especially with the bells), Charles La Pointe for hair and wig design, and Steve Rankin for fight direction.
The result of these bravura efforts is a thoroughly enjoyable show that doesn't sugarcoat the darker aspects of Victor Hugo's tome. The Hunchback of Notre Dame has its comic moments, to be sure, but they are always tinged with the knowledge that evil exists in the world. It's difficult to be light-hearted, even on the Feast of Fools Day, when at any moment you can be run out of town, accused of sorcery and burned at the stake.
Currently, there are no plans to take this production beyond the Paper Mill Playhouse, so don't wait for a Broadway run to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It is a splendid piece of musical theater that is worth every penny of the ticket you buy. But please, leave the little ones at home; the production is advertised as being suitable for children over the age of 12—when they can understand and appreciate the show's main themes. Younger children will be lost, and you'll find yourself having to explain too much.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame will be performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, New Jersey, through April 5. For performance times, information and tickets, call the box office at 973.376.4343 or visit www.papermill.org online.