So, where we last left The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it was being co-produced by La Jolla Playhouse and New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse through what was called “special arrangement with Disney Theatricals.” The musical had its genesis as a Disney film, and then the Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz score was enlarged to yield a stage version. That version was a hit in Germany but hadn’t played in the U. S. before its debut in La Jolla with a revised book, credited to Peter Parnell.
Reviews in La Jolla were mixed. My colleague, Welton Jones, called it “an industrial-strength stage show, an invigorating evening of theatre with no irritating aftertaste and bright prospects,” and after registering some complaints, he concluded that the production “approaches the job with proud and loving handcraft and is rewarded with resonant success.”
My review, written for TalkinBroadway.com, faulted Mr. Parnell’s book for too many contemporary colloquialisms and complained, “where the book is working to add complexity and make the tale a personal one for audiences, the music is working to simplify emotional content.”
As it happened, the reviews of the Paper Mill production were also mixed, and Broadway producers never materialized. The work languished a while longer and was eventually released for regional production.
Enter director Glenn Casale of the California Musical Theatre, in Sacramento. Working with an in-the-round space, he’s stripped the show of some of its excess weight, solved the tone problems by making the production unabashedly romantic, and in the process created a very sturdy entertainment that regional theatre companies would be pleased to present as a “special treat” for their audiences. (I can certainly see Vista’s Moonlight Stage Productions taking on this version and having itself a huge hit with it).
Mr. Casale has partnered with McCoy-Rigby Productions to present a proscenium version of his production at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, just over the Los Angeles County line from Fullerton and Buena Park. If you saw the La Jolla production and wanted it to be better, it’s worth the drive to see what “better” looks like.
This version feels less bloated though it still runs two-and-a-half hours, including intermission. There’s clearly been some trimming, and the colloquialisms in Mr. Parnell’s book that irritated me before are either gone or don’t ring false this time. And, most importantly, the conflict I saw between the emotional weight of the production and their score has been resolved.
I think that the resolution has come by making the characters less complex and, in the process, emphasizing the romanticism that was original author Victor Hugo’s stock-in-trade. There’s even places where it now resembles the musical version of that other Hugo novel, Les Misérables.
For example, in this production, it is clear that the Gypsy, Esmeralda (Cassie Simone) is sympathetic to Quasimodo’s (John McGinty) plight but that she loves her other suiter, Captain Phoebus De Martin (Eric Kunze). It is also clear that Dom Claude Frollo (Mark Jacoby) is the basso profundo villain, despite his momentary forays of self-examination. And, that the Gypsies are basically fun-loving, if wrongly-persecuted, outsiders.
In what could have been considered a gimmick, Mr. Casale has cast Mr. McGinty, a hard-of-hearing actor, as his leading man. Mr. McGinty’s portrayal confounds any thought of gimmickry, though, by his shear humanity and his ability to play an attractive and caring man who is rejected for not being like everyone else. This casting makes plain how Quasimoto can hear the gargoyles as they come to life and interact with him (the gargoyles also sign as they interact with Quasimoto). Dino Nicandros plays the chief gargoyle and serves admirably as Mr. McGinty’s singing voice.
There are still some problems. The on-stage choir lends power to some scenes but probably represents overkill (and, blend and balance were not entirely together on opening night). Josh Bessom’s sound design emphasizes loud over beautiful, drowning out what may be the best song in the show, “God Help the Outcasts.”
These problems, particularly the choir, are the sort that would keep The Hunchback of Notre Dame from being successful on Broadway. But, Mr. Casale’s production demonstrates that it might well prove to be a winner in regional theatre.