By Patrick Hurley
Victor Hugo’s classic novel featuring the most famous ostracized outcast of all time comes to grand and vibrant life in La Mirada’s production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Musical, with songs based on the 1996 animated Disney film, is slightly darker than it’s animated predecessor and follows a bit closer, at least in narrative, to the classic novel.
The story follows Quasimodo (John McGinty), a malformed recluse, who after being abandoned by his father at the cathedral, is taken in by Dom Claude Frollo (Mark Jacoby) and sent to the bell tower, where he can live out of sight of the rest of the city. And so it goes that Quasimodo was to remain alone in the bell tower. And isolated from the rest of civilization, Quasimodo fills his time by befriending the gargoyles that reside at the top of Notre Dame. All of the gargoyles come to life in this production and speak with him, and one of them even serves as his voice (Dino Nicandros). Because, what this production does that no other rendition of this book has done thus far is that it has Quasimodo being played by a deaf actor. Quasimodo is deaf in the novel, so this a wonderful adherence to the classic text that also plays out beautifully on stage. Not only is John McGinty’s performance very good, but Dino Nicandros’ singing voice is a thing of beauty. The combination of these two men creates a unique theatrical experience and strengthens this production.
From his bell tower, high atop the city of Paris, Quasimodo dreams of life among the people. And one day he ventures to the city where he beholds the beautiful Esmeralda (Cassie Simone), and it’s love at first sight for our protagonist. His love for her is all the more cemented after she rescues him from a group of ruffians who are having fun whipping and tormenting him. Esmeralda returns him to Notre Dame, and it’s there that Frollo meets her for the first time. Unfortunately for all, the deeply sinister Frollo also falls instantly for the beautiful Esmeralda, and pursues her with all the gusto of a true Disney villain. And of course Esmeralda is in love with another, Captain Phoebus De Martin (Eric Kunze), making the pursuit of her all the more inevitably impossible for both our hero and antagonist. The story then becomes the pursuit of love by two men who are both outcasts, and who are both incapable of winning.
The music, by Academy-Award winning composer Alan Menken with Lyrics by Wicked’s Stephen Schwartz, attempts to, but never really soars. There are moments, where the power of a singer can raise the score above itself, particularly songs like “Out There,” and Mr. Nicandros incredible “Made of Stone.” Frollo’s villainous lament “Hellfire” is also kind of fabulous in all its melodramatic glory. But mostly, the songs don’t really stick, especially coming from two masters of the medium.
The production looks fantastic. Stephen Gifford’s scenic design is grand and Marcy Froehlich’s costumes are right on the money. Director Glenn Casale keeps the Disney-esque spirit alive in this production, which works for the spectacle, but works less so in other areas, particularly the performances. Most of the characters are inhabited with a larger-than-life approach that unfortunately distances us from them because the heightened characterizations lessens the humanity, and we’re left with slightly cartoonish versions of classic literary characters.
In the end, the look and sound of this production are big. It’s a glossy, highly-charged and entertaining musical that does what it does very well, and leaves a little to be desired, particularly to anyone familiar with the novel. There is a bit of longing for the deep humanity of Hugo’s tragic story, and perhaps a bit less Disney fanfare, but mainstream audiences probably vehemently disagree. And whichever way your taste sways, there is no denying the wonderful spectacle that is this Hunchback.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Music By Alan Menken
Lyrics By Stephen Schwartz
Book by Peter Parnell
Directed by Glenn Casale
Sept. 17-October 9
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
14900 La Mirada Blvd. La Mirada CA 90638