Written by Alina Mae Wilson
If you have been longing for a bit of Disney without the Disney feel, your time has finally come. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is playing over at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. Based more closely on the plot from Victor Hugo’s markedly more sinister novel, this tale of the famed bell-ringer incorporates music from the 1996 Disney film to create a mesh of political intrigue and romance that promises to capture the spirit of the movie and pain from the novel but does not fully deliver on either front.
Quasimodo is Notre Dame’s famously deformed bellringer. Due to his frightening visage and his crooked spine, the notoriously repressed Archdeacon Claude Frollo taught him to fear the world and all its inhabitants–except Frollo of course –who as far as Quasimodo is concerned qualifies for canonized sainthood. Esmeralda is a stirringly beautiful gypsy woman capturing the attention of pretty much every man in the story: Quasimodo, Frollo, and the handsome Captain Phoebus of the Church Guard. The plot centers mostly on whether Quasimodo will ever be accepted among other people, who will be the recipient of Esmeralda’s heart, and of course, who will die an untimely death.
Let me start off with what is absolutely fantastic about this show –the cast. The actors here are absolutely fantastic, not to mention the realism added to this story. Yes, I said realism. In the book Quasimodo is permanently deaf from the ringing of the bells. Here he is played for the first time (to my knowledge) by real-life deaf actor John McGinty. During the songs where Quasimodo is required to sing, McGinty performs in American Sign Language while the vocal performance is done by Dino Nicandros, who has the voice of a veritable angel (seriously, he is better than the performer in the film version). I have seen musicals with deaf performers and their vocal “doubles” before, but for some reason the incorporation of Nicandros doesn’t work here as well as it could or should. This is mostly because Nicandros also plays a gargoyle, which would be totally fine if not for the fact that he jumps back and forth between being Quasimodo’s inner voice and being one of Quasimodo’s external “friends.” For lack of a better word, it is irritating. I will say that McGinty and Nicandros have some of the best onstage chemistry I have ever seen, and the moments where they are standing close or interacting with each other are delightful . The other gargoyles onstage do a lot of interacting with Quasimodo as well, and they sign (while also speaking) to communicate with him, but the sign language isn’t used continuously throughout the show, so I don’t know for sure if non-hearing patrons would enjoy the whole piece as much as hearing ones. It’s not hard to imagine so many men lusting after Esmeralda (Cassie Simone) while she dances around the stage in all her lilac finery. Simone delivers a performance that is appealing in every way. Whether she is singing or dancing –the attention from the men surrounding her is pretty understandable. Mark Jacoby plays our villain Claude Frollo, and he nails the song “Hellfire” with a terrifying intensity that is palpable even as he sings from his prayer position on the floor. All of the performances here are stunning.
The set is excellent –with a very authentic “stone cathedral” serving as the background throughout. There are also some truly magnificent bells that come down from the ceiling in order for Quasimodo to ring them. The costumes are nice, my favorites being Esmeralda’s purple dancing dress and Clopin’s (Keith A. Beaden) gypsy king attire. You may be starting to notice a theme here, which is I like the colors. Unfortunately, I do not think we get enough of them for the set to be considered completely appealing. Dark and drab can work –in the right storyline. Here it seems like they are trying to blend the darkness of the original story with the brightness of the Disney musical, but instead of a blend it feels more like a mesh. Some things just do not work, and the things that do, sort of seem like a happy coincidence.
I have mixed feelings about the plot. On the one hand I can appreciate the fact that this story is trying to be more true to Victor Hugo’s tragedy. And the sorrow emanating from McGinty’s portrayal of the stunted Quasimodo is all too real. But the use of the Disney music in this piece and the fact that they had to re-write pieces of Hugo’s original work…it is just so strange. It is as if they had to reel in the true horror so the script would match the child-friendly music but did not want the cartoon’s sense of bliss. I wish this script made up it’s mind –does it want to be a drama or not, child-friendly or not? Right now it is somewhere in the middle.
September 16 – October 9, 2016