The Heart of The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Let’s face it: collectively-speaking, a live-action musical production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame was in our culture’s calling since…well basically, since Victor Hugo wrote it. Maybe it is easy to say that in hindsight - especially post-Les Miserables and after the release of the Disney-animated film with the unstoppable duo of musical power, Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken - but all the ingredients of an epic-ified musical are there, plain as day. I know the source material is, admittedly, dark and not exactly conducive for children. But I take that with a grain of salt considering “darkness” never stopped people, youths even, from showing up in troves for Les Miz. And, like, that show has a legitimate body count to tally.

What I’m implying is…I understand, what with Disney helming Hunchback, why the powers that be would be apprehensive in pedaling this show. But they are sorely underestimating their product because at Sunday night’s opening at Papermill Playhouse, with a fuck-ton of years-in-the-making anticipation in the air, the show just blew everything out of the water. In fact, it’s so damn great, I spent my drive home from the foreign country of New Jersey trying to pin-point which aspects of the show were more transcendent then the others.

And looking at it all…my mind keeps going back to the stellar cast, showing up and dazzling at every juncture.

What made Michael Arden’s performance as Quasimodo so amazeballs is that this isn’t the Michael Arden that you’ve spent the last five or six years watching YouTube videos of him singing. You come into Hunchback - or at least I did - knowing full well that there isn’t a note outside of his range or a belt he can’t blast with the full-power of heaven behind him. But that’s not what happens…in addition to physical and emotionally transforming himself into the Hunchback - the hunched posture, staggered walking, the wheezing voice, the mentally cray cray component with talking to imaginary friends/voices - he REALLY goes the distance when it is his turn to sing.

Michael somehow managed to incorporate his (Godly) singing voice into Quasimodo, so each number is equal parts beleaguered and rough-sounding, with a few moments where he vocally clears up and projects his crystal-clear voice to the rafters and the stars and Mars even. The end result? Utter perfection. You lose sight of the fact that this is Michael singing until you hear those golden notes causing goosebumps all over your body (and a tingly sensation in your ovaries). “Out There” will never not be a totally badass song - the token Schwartz-influenced character introduction ballad of optimism and feelz, a la “Corner of the Sky” or “The Wizard and I” - and it found its dream vocalist. Overall, everything about Quasimodo will jumpstart your tear-ducts into overdrive and you have Arden to thank for that.

The other two powerhouse performances come from Patrick Page and Ciara Renee. Page’s Claude Frollo is exactly what the role called for: a hybrid of Inspector Javert-like rigidness and an undercurrent of distorted compassion. The character’s intentions are framed closer to a middle ground between ‘right’ and wrong' (there was no mention of his alchemy fascination and the town’s skeptical fallout from him), but Page knew how to bring a sense of entitlement and smarminess to the proceedings. Just one look at him and you don’t trust him, making Frollo’s crumbling mental state towards the end a worthy payoff for the story.

To top it all off, we have Renee…who just came out of nowhere to crush everything. She embodied Esmeralda’s gypsy spirit and considerable charm effortlessly, so much so, it was easy to understand why every male figure in the story, from Quasimodo to Claude Frollo to Captain Phoebus to Clopin, wanted to care for her, court her or sexually assault “seduce” her (side-glance to Frollo on that last point). Renee also wasn’t afraid to unsheathe her plucky, BAMF side. Esmeralda is a tall-order of a character with a lot of shades to her (and thankfully, her infatuation with Captain Phoebus was more composed) and Renee didn’t miss a beat. Her opening number - a full-blown harlequin dance spectacle - is one helluva moment and she also managed to do the impossible: hold her own against the vocal titan that is Michael Arden. "Top of the World” may have been the best number of the show - that also doubled as a classic Disney moment - and it was nothing more then the two of them singing (flawlessly) and gazing out into the Paris land and sky.

Scott Schwartz’z direction is strongest when he keeps things simple (about 75% of the show). He interwove the congregation and the narration perfectly throughout and played up Alexander Dodge’s and Alejo Vietti’s scenic and costume designs for full effect (the bells, you guys!). Some of the musical sequences, nearly every one in the first act for that matter, are downright stunning. But when shit temporarily falls apart, it FALLS. APART. Arden putting on and taking off his hump (no really) to differentiate between narrator and character was superfluous considering the show didn't need another narrator (the ensemble was doing a bang-up job anyways) and it took away a potential "WOW" gasp of seeing Quasimodo for the first time. The use of the stage curtain and red fabric was supposed to be “FIRE” during Esmeralda's "burning at the stake" scene...and all it looked like was a poor-man’s Susan Stroman cast-off. That plus Frollo’s final moments escalated to a plateau of narm that was nowhere to be found elsewhere. C'monnnnnn Scott...

But Hunchback! It’s finally here! And kicking ass! Don’t hold back anymore Disney/Producers/Investors…just like your cast, this show is going places if you give it everything you got.

Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

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