Theater Thursday: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” Paper Mill Playhouse Review

Dalin: Whenever someone asks me what my favorite Disney movie is, I can always say, without any delay, that it is The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Yes, it is a controversial adaptation in Disney’s animated catalog, but it is the one that no matter how many times I see it, still touches my soul. So when the official US premiere of the musical version was announced, I bought my tickets (for more than one performance) faster than anything I’ve purchased before.

Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 11.06.20 AMWhen I sat down in my seat, I knew what I was in for. This was to be a serious, non-“cute Gargoyles” rendition of the classic Victor Hugo novel, but with the added musical elements of the Disney film. The fact that Disney took a risk instead of falling to their usual tricks was what ultimately sold me on this production, similar to that of the German version the House of Mouse created back in the early 2000’s.

With the familiar melodies of Menken and Schwartz’s “Bells of Notre Dame,” the musical introduces us to an interesting narrative style, in which the entire ensemble presents the story to us, eliminating the solo narration that Gypsy King Clopin provided in the film. From then on the show sets itself apart from the typical Disney Theatrical productions, and easily becomes the company’s most mature musical thus far, both in message and delivery.

That maturity also allows for the cast to breath new life into characters that, in the film, were never truly shown at their full emotional potential. Though that can’t be said for the entire ensemble, it definitely explains the performances of both Patrick Page and Michael Arden.

Page’s Frollo takes the traditional cartoony bad guy many 90’s kids have grown to love, and brings him into a new, more believable light. Though much of that is due to the script itself, none of it would come to life with such humility and grace if it weren’t for Page’s personal touches. From his shaking hands in front of the beautiful Esmeralda, to his towering presence over Quasimodo, Frollo is not just the scary villain cloaked in black from many’s nostalgic memories. Rather, he becomes a more tortured individual than anyone could have imagined. Also, it is important to add, that Page’s vocals are the perfect cherry on this theater sundae, specifically when “Hellfire,” the beloved villain song, comes about near the end of Act 1.

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Interestingly enough, many of these qualities can also be said of Arden’s Quasimodo. Though Tom Hulce gave a beautifully sweet and accessible vocal rendition in the film, many were curious to see which route the production, and Arden, would take with the tragic hero. But when his unique entrance was made, it was clear that this wasn’t the typical theme park show Quasimodo of the 90’s, but instead a special incarnation that is thanks to Arden’s talents as an actor and overall performer.

I’ll be completely honest that when my favorite song from the German production, “Made of Stone,” began, I was nervous to see how Arden would do. This was a piece I had been listening to for the past 10 years, and was anticipating the moment I’d hear it, legitimately, in English. But nothing could have prepared me for how much I was going to love Arden’s rendition. Raw, powerful, it was everything I could have dreamed.

Even though this is a more accurate adaptation of Hugo’s work, sadly, certain characters get the short end of the stick. Esmeralda’s backstory with her mother is no where to be seen, leaving her to be more of a plot device than an actual protagonist. The same can be said for Clopin, who is given a toned down and shortened role compared to his animated rendition. But considering this incarnation has more of a focus on Frollo and Quasimodo, this is not too surprising.  But, thankfully, both Ciara Renee and Erik Liberman give fantastic performances, even though it would have been nice to see more given to their roles. Interestingly, Phoebus (Andrew Samonsky) is the only other role that gets much more development than his film counterpart, which makes him much more likable than ever before.

When it came to the rest of the score, the majority was just as stunning and enchanting as both the original Disney film and the German cast’s renditions. As for the brand new material made just for this US production, some pieces are better than others. “Rhythm of the Tambourine” is Esmeralda’s introduction song, and is one of the numbers that seems to slow down the first act dramatically. “Flight Into Egypt” opens up Act 1, and though charming, seems a bit amiss, but is definitely a better selection than “A Guy Like You.”

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Unfortunately, one of the best songs in show, “Someday,” seems to have been dramatically changed from its German incarnation. Initially, the song was more of an uplifting anthem between Esmeralda, Phoebus, and the citizens of Paris. Now it has been morphed into a duet of sorts, reducing the once unifying moment for an entire city, to a typical Disney romance. If there was one thing that should be changed from this Paper Mill version to Broadway, “Someday” needs to be restored to its choir-filled glory.

Overall, this is a risk-taking production that pays off beautifully in the end. Though I hope, when and if it makes its way to Broadway and there are a few tiny changes made, the show as a whole is truly a lovely piece that should be treasured. And as I tweeted after I left the theater….

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Kayla: Rather than going, “what she said,” and leaving this article alone, I have to add my two cents from a historical theater nerd perspective. Aside from the cast, the ensemble, the music and the story, this show was amazing because of the immense respect for theater history it displays. This is not a Disney show filled with magic carpets and flying nannies. Hunchback uses theatrical techniques from the time period in which the show takes place. It is genius. The production team built one beautiful set that acts as Notre Dame as well as the city of Paris. The costume changes are seamlessly built into the story of the show. The magic of the gypsies is not Disney invisible magic, but tricks that would have actually been used in the 1400’s. It works so well and really makes the audience feel a part of Victor Hugo’s world.

My favorite surprise of the evening, however, was Arden’s use of American Sign Language. It was such a small, subtle thing, and if you don’t know ASL, you’d never have noticed. For those of us who did notice thought, it was appreciated. It also added to the character so much because it was clear that though he struggled to communicate, he had so much he could say to them if they had more patience. I sincerely hope that when this goes to Broadway, the ASL stays.

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