Thursday, November 27, 2014

SUPERB AMERICAN MUSICAL PREMIERE OF “THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME” AT LA JOLLA PLAYHOUSE

The La Jolla Playhouse, one of the country’s leading Tony Award regional theatres, is a recognized leader in the art of transferring its productions from La Jolla to Broadway, and they have a genuine, bona fide candidate with the Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz, Peter Parnell production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”.

The libretto by Parnell is based on the 1831 Victor Hugo epic novel (it seems he only wrote epic novels) but it should not be confused with the 1996 Disney animated movie. That movie was for the kiddies.

This magnificent production, now on stage at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, is for grown-ups. Under the inspired direction of Scott Schwartz (son of Stephen Schwartz) the production soars both literally and figuratively. The astonishing set design by Alexander Dodge is breathtaking in its attention to detail in recreating a 30 foot-tall Notre Dame Cathedral for the actors to perform their magic, complete with gigantic bells and ringing ropes, choir stalls, and street scenes of 1482 Paris. When one walks into the Weiss auditorium it becomes immediately apparent that everyone is in for a very special evening of theatre.

The story revolves around Quasimodo, the deformed hunchbacked Notre Dame Cathedral bell-ringer (Julian Decker the night I attended), the beautiful gypsy girl Esmerelda (Ciara Renee), the obsessively enthralled and conflicted Dom Claude Frollo, the archdeacon of Notre Dame Cathedral (a superb and mesmerizing Patrick Page), who falls under the spell of Esmeralda and the young handsome Captain of the Cathedral Guard, Phoebus de Martin (Andrew Samonsky) who also has fallen for the young gypsy beauty.


Victor Hugo’s poignant tale allows us to peer into the lives and the emotions of society’s outcasts during the Middle Ages: the poor, the disenfranchised, people of color; those with no hope or chance of escaping their destinies in their search of a better life in the Paris of 1482. The character of Clopin, King of the Gypsies, is symbolic and represents the “outcasts” Erik Liberman’s sly, wry, and inventive gypsy king portrayal shines in the lively “Topsy/Turvy” number in Act I, and in Act II with “The Court of Miracles” number.

Hugo’s story of religious men in positions of power taking advantage of women have been the basis for many Hollywood films and plays over the last eighty-years From “Rain” (1932) with Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson, to Rita Hayworth’s Miss Sadie Thompson” (1953), both playing alluring social outcasts to hypocritical religious men and pillars of society. In “Elmer Gantry” Shirley Jones won a Best Supporting Oscar playing a prostitute who brings down the slick talking tent revivalist/preacher Burt Lancaster, who also won the Best Lead Actor Oscar for his portrayal. The appeal of stories that feature men and women grappling with their personal morality and the concepts of good and evil is a favorite subject matter for playwrights and screenwriters to this day. To date, that dynamic hasn’t been resolved but it sure does make for compelling theatre.

The masterful staging and direction of Scott Schwartz, who combines new orchestrations for this production from Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s 1996 original score, is blessed not only with a solid cast of supporting players and ensemble performers, but benefits from the local San Diego area SACRA/PROFANA choir whose singing and Gregorian chanting enriches all of the musical aspects of this impressive production.

When the production opens inside the Cathedral, the company of players, singers and choir fill the Weiss Theatre with a glorious sound that shakes the building as a cast of twenty-five plus performers fill the stage in full-throated song with “The Bells of Notre Dame” number. What a splendid way to introduce your cast to the audience.

Leading the cast of principal performers is Julian Decker as Quasimodo. His strong tenor voice is all the more outstanding as it soars out of the deformed body which he twists and turns in his portrayal of a deprive-from-birth individual who has lived his entire life inside the great cathedral hidden from the outside world. One can feel his pain and his yearning with his poignant rendition of “Out There”. Ciara Renee’s Esmeralda performance speaks volumes with her beautiful soprano rendition of “God Help the Outcasts”. As Lincoln once said, “God must dearly love poor people because he made so many of them”. The Middle-Ages was not a compassionate time period to be alive if one was not part of the upper classes.

Anchoring this splendid production is the performance of Patrick Page as Dom Claude Frollo. Page is widely recognized as one of America’s leading classic actors and is an Artist in Residence at San Diego’s Old Globe. His deep Bass-Baritone voice grabs the audience, and never lets go. His “Sanctuary” duet with Decker is haunting and spellbinding. The “Hellfire” number with Esmeralda and the congregation is spectacular with the burning of Esmeralda who has been declared a witch by Page. His conflicted archdeacon passes sentence on her while still secretly desiring her.

The creative team led by Schwartz delivers a spectacular set design by the aforementioned Alexander Dodge, with mood inducing lighting by Howell Binkley, along with a powerful sound design by Gareth Owen. The costumes of Alejo Vietti provide the ring of authenticity for the period. Special mention goes to the Music Supervision/Arranger Michael Kosarin, Music Director Brent-Alan Huffman, and Orchestrator Michael Starobin. All the technical elements are first rate.

Under the Artistic Directorship of Chris Ashley, the playhouse is, once again, well positioned to send another of Ashley’s selections east to Broadway in search of yet another Tony win.

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” runs at the La Jolla Playhouse in the Mandell Weiss Theatre through December 14, 2014.