A Lavish Performance of Love and Lust.
Does the name Quasimodo ring a bell? Victor Hugo’s deformed outcast has swung from many rafters in his day, though rarely as poignantly or as fervidly as in Stage Door Repertory Theatre’s current production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” running now through September 24th in Anaheim.
Dark and medieval-moody, yet with exuberant Broadway roots plainly showing (even though it never made it there), the intensely emotional melodrama definitely raises the bar at the popular theater, sparked by stellar performances overall which prompts its audience to an extended standing ovation at the finale.
While thesps change roles before our eyes and narrate the action in third-person direct address, a pull rope descends ostensibly attached to the unseen cathedral bells and Nick Charles’ lighting drenches the stage in the deep blues and reds of Chartres stained glass. On top of that, cast voices are augmented by members of a stationary choir of seven, high in the rafters and ensconced against the back wall to lend startling depth to the Menken/Schwartz religioso numbers, as choirs of saints and sinners, hooded monks, and gypsy travelers all pay homage with the classical Greek chorus. Here Director Charles again delivers a beautifully directed piece, with Choreographer Anthony Tuason more than up to the task of making gypsies, clergy, hunchbacks, gargoyles, and saints move in unison.
A musical based on the 1831 novel written by Victor Hugo with songs from the 1996 Academy Award-Nominated Walt Disney animated film adaptation, the original musical premiered in 1999 in Berlin as “Der Glöckner von Notre Dame.” It was also produced by Walt Disney Theatrical, becoming their first to premiere outside the U.S. It ran for three years, still claiming the title as one of Berlin's longest-running musicals.
The English-language version, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” with a revised libretto (a book by Peter Parnell, the musical score by Alan Menken, with songs by Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz) had its debut at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego on October 28th, 2014. I was there for that grand, riveting premiere, which was spearheaded by internationally celebrated director Scott Schwartz, and featured “Sacra-Profana,” a California 32-voice chamber choir which appeared onstage during the entire show.
For those who may be unfamiliar, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” takes place in the late 1400’s and tells the story of Quasimodo, “half-made” and orphaned, who is raised in solitude in the bell tower of Paris’s Notre Dame and in servitude to his sanctimonious, ableist uncle, Claude Frollo, the Minister of Justice. Quasimodo yearns to experience the world “out there,” but Frollo discourages this, telling him he will never be seen as anything more than a monster due to his deformities.
This changes when Quasimodo gives in to the urgings of the lesser angels…the stone gargoyles who have been his only friends in the tower, and sneaks out one day and meets the gypsy woman, Esmeralda, who later saves him from being tormented and beaten by the townspeople. They become friends and Quasimodo quickly develops romantic feelings towards her—as do both Frollo and Phoebus, the defrocked Captain of the Guard. When Frollo (Eric J. Hindley), who also wants to commit genocide against Paris' Romani population, sentences Esmeralda to death, primarily as a means of coping with his own “impure” desires, Quasimodo and Phoebus attempts to find a way to save her.
Learning of his devotion to the gypsy girl, Dom Frollo’s hatred and prejudice reaches a deep-seated crescendo and he orders Phoebus (Jerred Yeash) to hunt down Esmeralda (for whom he is also developing a most unholy lustful passion), blaming her and the entire band of gypsies for the corruption of Quasimodo.
Starring TJ Punchard as the golden-hearted, misshapen brute who deserves but doesn't ever get the girl, his capacity to convey shades of emotion beneath grotesque makeup and costuming is unrivaled. He is a revelation in his role as he scampers around the façade of Notre Dame as if born for the part. The empathy he earns is warm and in context, while his “I want” songs are the clarion calls of a tortured soul, devoid of any “melisma” -influenced vocal pyrotechnics. He is splendid. And Mr. Punchard’s denunciation of the stone saints and sinners who have been Quasimodo’s companions, confidants, and conscience since birth in “Made of Stone” is a bonafide show-stopper.
The girl that everyone wants, Layla Baki Elefante’s Esmeralda, with big, expressive eyes, seems to have a hold on all that look upon her. Perhaps she does do that voodoo, after all. Her sizzling gypsy — choreographed with lighthearted artistry by Anthony Tuason — resists cliche through her genuine vulnerability and charm. Ms. Elefante’s vocals are absolutely beautiful on “God Help the Outcasts,” and “Someday.”
In fact, all the main roles smack of familiar types. In a “Les Miz” touch, Frollo is poised to out-Javert Javert for ruthless self-righteousness, down to the “Stars”-like, wickedness-justifying anthem “Hellfire.” Yet Mr. Hindley’s portrayal of the archbishop’s gradual descent into unmitigated evil is quite believable, complex and blessedly underplayed. Esmeralda is an Aldonza waiting for a monk of La Mancha to redeem her, while Quasimodo himself, pure soul misunderstood through misshapen body, may be too close to “The Elephant Man” for comfort, right down to the theme expressed in song: “What makes a monster and what makes a man?”
Enter a third man infatuated with Esmeralda, the freshly decorated Captain Phoebus (Mr. Yeash reprising his role with Stage Door; “Damn Yankees”), who brings enough suave “Aragon” swagger to outdo a Disney prince, forming a love quadrangle inevitably followed by heartache and tragedy. Mr. Yeash easily holds his own vocally against the other main characters. His Phoebus is a lightly-sketched portrait of an Army officer mired in the throes of self-promotion and service to the church who is ultimately transformed by the strength of love, truth, and justice.
The strongest numbers in the production explicitly tackle the twin themes of social conscience and individual moral responsibility, from the celebration of an out-of-control, witless populace in “Topsy-Turvy” to Esmeralda’s prayer “God Help the Outcasts.” Notably, Julie Charles, Tina Bremer and Thom Chapman’s costumes, especially the gypsy costumes, were perfect – silky, flowing, vibrant representations of their outcast, traveling lifestyle.
Special kudos to Dimitri Tiatia-Garaud—another personal favorite in the show—in the role of Clopin, King of the gypsies, who serves as narrator to all the action swirling through Paris. He is at times both bold and brash, orchestrating the gypsy crew to ever-increasing levels of hostility against the clergy, while taking a stand for the rights of all to exist in community, if not churchly communion.
The cast infuses its performances with just the right amount of Disney-esque appeal to offset the darker nuances of the story through powerhouse vocals. In pure Menken fashion, Quasimodo’s “Out There,” as well as his duet with Esmeralda, “Top of the World,” makes the most of Mr. Punchard and Ms. Elefante’s soaring voices, but in a way more soulful than saccharine, contrasting their animated counterparts.
Because of this lack of Hollywood magic, the stage itself had to be adapted to smoothly transition from the exterior to interior of the cathedral, as well as from its first floor to the attic in which Quasimodo lives. Founder, Director and Scenic Designer Nick Charles, along with Troy Olschewske, has worked around this potential snag through a clever and intricate mise en scène-like set design, mainly consisting of a majestic bell tower depiction with Notre Dame’s rose window, along with adjoining raised platforms for edge scenes and a simulated hatch staircase to a lower floor.
As I have come to expect from Stage Door Rep, everything about this production was first rate. While the score is certainly not one likely to become standards on the karaoke scene, the music and lyrics by Menken and Schwartz quite effectively captures the essence and sorrow of the unrequited love of Quasimodo, the doomed love of Esmeralda and Phoebus, as well as the sordid ecclesiastical lusts of Dom Frollo.
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, with Book by PETER PARNELL, Music by STEPHEN SCHWARTZ and Lyrics by ALAN MENKEN. Based on the Victor Hugo novel and songs from the Disney film. Directed and Staged by NICK CHARLES, Musically Directed by NICK BRAVO, and Choreographed by ANTHONY TUASON. Dance Captain is DAELYN CERRUTI; Stage Manager is DONNA NELSON; Assistant Stage Manager is ISABEL PEREZ-FLORES; Costumes by JULIE CHARLES, TINA BREMER, THOM CHAPMAN and THE THEATRE COMPANY OF UPLAND; Scenic Design by NICK CHARLES and TROY OLSCHEWSKE; Lighting Design by NICK CHARLES; Sound Design by CLARK COOPER.
CAST: TJ PUNCHARD as Quasimodo, ERIC J. HINDLEY as Dom Frollo, LAYLA BAKI ELEFANTE as Esmeralda, DIMITRI TIATIA-GARTAUD as Clopin Trouillefou, JERRED YEASH as Captain Phoebus de Martin, LUIS ENRIQUE as Jehan Frollo/Lt. Frederic Charlus, ADRIANA CATANZARITE as Florika/Gypsy, JEFF MEMPIN as Father Dupin/Gorgoyle/Soldier, JAMES GOMEZ as King Louis XI/Gorgoyle/Soldier, ANTHONY FRIAS as Official/Gorgoyle/Soldier, BRIANA BONILLA as Madame/Gorgoyle/Gypsy, PATRICK CASTILLO as Saint Aphrodisius/Gorgoyle/Soldier, TAYLOR SIMONE HALL as Gorgoyle/Gypsy, IESHA PRECIOUS RINGOR as Gorgoyle/Gypsy, NICHOLE WHITER as Gorgoyle, DAELYN CERRUTI as Gypsy, MIKAELA RUIZ as Gypsy. Choir: BRITTANY BERIN, QUINTIN BURROLA, MADELEINE CHOCHOLATY, SAMANTHA DIVIS, ANDERS HOSEK, SYDNEY SUBLETTE, CLARK WEYENBERG.
Running through September 24th at STAGE DOOR REPERTORY THEATRE, 1045 N. Armando St., Suite B - Anaheim Hills, CA 92806, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00PM. For Tickets, please visit http://www.stagedoorrep.org/ or call the box office at 714-630-7378.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo credit: Amy Gettys