By EMILY JENNINGS THE FREE LANCE–STAR; Mar 28, 2018
From the ominous opening melody to the crashing “Finale Ultimo,” Riverside Center for the Performing Arts’ production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” seduces a depth of fascination from audience members not often seen at the dinner theater.
An ambitious production, led by Justin Luciano as Quasimodo and Thomas Adrian Simpson as Dom Claude Frollo, sends chills through the viewer, repeatedly inspiring the desired mix of horror and delight. The 18-person cast, the largest in Riverside history, is backed by a chorus of 20 and accompanied by a nine-piece orchestra.
Exploring such adult themes as social exile and its effects on purity, cruelty and manipulation, and lust intermixed with religious devotion, the musical—directed by Riverside’s artistic director Patrick A’Hearn—is no happy Disney fairy tale. Though based on the 1996 animated film, this “Hunchback” returns to its roots in Victor Hugo’s 1831 iconic tragic novel.
After producing successful stage versions of “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” in 1999 Disney did the same with “Hunchback,” opening first in Germany using songs from the movie and additional material. Further revisions were made before bringing it to La Jolla, Calif., in 2014, and New Jersey’s Papermill Theater a year later, after which the show was released for regional theater production.
Along with memorable music recognized from the Disney movie—“God Help the Outcasts” and “Out There,” among others—composer Alan Menken (“Little Shop of Horrors,” “Newsies,” many Disney film numbers) and lyricist Stephen Schwartz (“Pippin,” “Wicked”) have added nine pieces, and a new book by Peter Parnell.
The story’s central conflict in this version is less about deformed bell ringer Quasimodo, who ventures out into the real world for the first time, discovering its cruelty but also finding a friend in the gypsy girl Esmerelda (played with charm by Candice Shedd–Thompson). In a prologue sequence worked into the opening number “The Bells of Notre Dame,” we learn archdeacon Frollo’s backstory. A greater portion of the following action focuses on Frollo’s sinister struggles between virtue and vice, including his ultimate demise.
Though there are a few moments of humor (a singing beheaded saint is especially entertaining), the story is somewhat heavy and occasionally difficult to follow as narrators sometimes seem to interrupt the action with details delivered too fast or not loud enough to understand.
In spite of this, the story is easy to follow. Since it involves a deeper analysis into the character of Frollo, the audience is treated to a healthy helping of Simpson’s velvety bass-baritone—every minute of which is a reward for the listener—as he portrays a conflicted villain with multilayered motivation. “Hellfire,” which closes out Act I, reminds us of Disney’s unusually dark animated song, but feels unleashed onstage in an adult production with a greater ability to convey Frollo’s inner turmoil.
Luciano is transformed into Quasimodo—a cruel name bestowed by Frollo meaning “half-formed”—before our eyes as he straps on his hump and rakes rough lines of makeup onto his face to represent his deformed ugliness, all the while accompanied by explanatory melodic narration (costume designer is Jimm Halliday).
Luciano skillfully demonstrates the bell ringer’s struggle to communicate with other characters due to impaired speech and deafness. In contrast, his soaring tenor voice clearly expresses what’s in Quasimodo’s mind and heart.
Shedd–Thompson as Esmerelda introduces a needed softness and compassion to the show. Her rendering of “God Help the Outcasts” is a moving prayer for all who feel marginalized by society.
Providing the musical foundation for the show is the choir and nine-piece orchestra led by music director Garrett Jones, both groups unusually large for a Riverside production. Utilizing rotating members of the Stafford Regional Choral Society, 20 singers in monk robes underpin the action with solemn Latin reminders of piety and religious devotion.
Sean McClelland’s impressive set features several levels, three giant bells, gargoyles and the cathedral’s well-known multifaceted rose window, providing an effective backdrop that enhances the action, bolstered by Michael Jarrett’s lighting design.
After the final tragic, transcendent scene, the show’s central riddle rings in the air as the audience leaves the theater: “What makes a monster and what makes a man?”
While not quite matching the quality and scope of Hugo’s other great work of literature converted to the stage—“Les Miserables”—Menken and Schwartz’s “Hunchback” explores similar themes, thrilling the viewer with a powerful score and complex ideas, performed by a talented cast in Riverside’s excellent production.