Monday, March 16, 2015

Larger-Than-Life Hunchback Looms Over Paper Mill

FOR TICKETS VISIT: An Epic Tale of Passion and Hope... A U.S. premiere by two Broadway legends. Now through April 5.

There's a scene in the new musical, The Hunchback of Notre Dame at The Paper Mill Playhouse where the show's chief villain, the prelate Dom Claude Frollo is accused of treating the hunchback (Quasimodo) as if he were less than human. And Frollo, who poses as the hunchback's protector and caregiver simply answers: "Some of us are less than human, in a moral sense."
And therein lies the nut of this production which includes music from the 1996 Disney animated film of the same name coupled with a new book. For the chief "sin" that this secular morality tale seems to want to impress upon us is our grave tendency to judge (or even prejudge) others. Above all, the moral seems to be "Thou must not be judgmental."
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Let us first observe that we came to this Hunchback as veritable innocents. We had never been exposed in any form to Victor Hugo's classic tale of a cast-away misfit who found refuge in one of the world's most famous cathedrals. We never read the book and we never saw any of the many stage or movies versions that have been produced over the years. So, we had no significant preconceptions.
With music and lyrics  by the stellar pair of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz and a new, darker, sometimes brooding book by Peter Parnell, this Hunchback gives us not just a first-rate team that has triumphed both on Broadway and in Hollywood but topflight production values that match the tale's ambitious scope.
Director Scott Schwartz freely admits that there are not always clear heroes or villains in this show. Each character is dogged by his or her own temptations, pitfalls and both obvious and not-so-obvious deformities. The director gives us what he calls a story of "sexual obsession" centered around three men (Quasimodo, Frollo and the soldier Phoebus) and their attraction to the gypsy temptress Esmerelda. So much for any possible confusion between this and the Disney version.
This is a production of near-operatic proportions and the voices (including a large on-stage chorus) are up to the challenge of the score. Indeed, the script, music and choreography are seamless as the large cast inhabits the story.
As Esmerelda, Ciara Renée is exotic and fetching though nonetheless savvy and independent-minded.  If any character even approaches heroic proportions, she's it. Andrew Somonsky is towering as Phoebus, the hopelessly conflicted soldier torn between his duty to follow orders and his own innate sense of right and wrong. Somonsky's Phoebus would be downright dashing except for the fact that he's stuck in the 1500's. As Frollo, Patrick Page manages to be appropriately smug while avoiding caricature in a piece that is kind neither to the Catholic Church nor its servants. This padre is sadly suffocated by his own self-righteousness.
But it is Michael Arden who shines above all in the choice role of Quasimodo, lending an ample dose of humanity to the subject of relentless derision. When Arden gazes out over Paris from the top of the cathedral and sings Out There, he brings the house down. To be sure (and, in fairness) each of these characters has his or her own Big Number and these include God Help The Outcasts (Esmerelda), Hellfire (Pollo) and Someday (Phoebus and Esmerelda).
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is part Les Miserables and part Phantom of the Opera with a bit of Man of La Mancha just to keep us hopeful and give us something to aspire to.
Various secondary characters and members of the large chorus step forward from time to time to narrate bits and pieces of the story and help fill in the blanks while some members of the chorus also pose as gargoyles who dialogue with the hunchback. Not all of this is necessary and sometimes it can be a distraction.
But this is a major, richly-mounted production that aims to remind us that we are all disfigured and all deformed in one way or another because none of us are perfect and neither is the world we live in.
We guarantee you this: You'll have plenty to think about by the time you leave the theater!

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