Take a classic novel by Victor Hugo, half-a-dozen songs from a favorite Disney film, and the inspired casting of a deaf actor as Quasimodo and you’ve got three, though hardly the only reasons for The Hunchback Of Notre Dame to top any musical theater lover’s must-see list as summer turns to fall.
Parents of Disney-age kiddies should make no mistake. With none of the movie’s five screenwriters involved, nearly two-thirds of the musicals’s Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz songs new to the stage production, and only a few of the film’s central conceits (say adieu to gargoyles Victor, Hugo, and LaVerne) making the cut, this is no child-friendly Beauty And The Beast-style adaptation of a Disney classic.
Instead what director Glenn Casale and McCoy Rigby Entertainment give us at the La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts is a Phantom/Jekyll & Hyde-style musical drama with equal parts spectacle (kudos to the production’s Broadway-ready production design) and heart (bravo to Casale for taking a cue from Deaf West and casting the brilliant and winning John McGinty as a Quasimodo who touches us as none have before).
As in the show’s 2014 La Jolla Playhouse World Premiere, humanized gargoyles portrayed by ensemble members allow book writer Peter Parnell to give us glimpses of the inner Quasimodo, but this time round it’s with a twist.
La Mirada’s gargoyles communicate with their Hunchback buddy via sign language, and though it’s McGinty’s quite intelligible speaking voice we hear, when his heart sings, it is gargoyle Dino Nicandros whose tenor soars so gloriously that it could coax tears from his fellow creatures of stone.
A back-story quite distinct from the Disney flick introduces us to Quasimodo as the orphaned son of chief villain Claude Frollo’s (Mark Jacoby) younger brother Jehan (Shannon Stoeke) and his gypsy lover Florika (Devon Hadsell).
Hunchback The Musical does follow the movie as regards the sultry Esmeralda (Cassie Simone), introducing us to the seductive gypsy during Quasimodo’s excursion to the annual Festival Of Fools, where our deaf hero also makes the acquaintance of Captain Phoebus (Eric Kunze) and soon finds himself competing with the handsome soldier for Esmeralda’s affection.
Meanwhile, Frolo’s lust for the gypsy temptress not only smolders, it ranks tops among reasons for parents of preteens to hire a babysitter before heading off for a night at the theater.
Menken/Schwartz fans can rejoice that almost all of the film’s original songs remain including “Out There,” “Somewhere,” and “God Help The Outcasts,” many of them backed by the celestial harmonies of an onstage choir, and at least some of the musical’s new songs prove memorable as well.
As for Parnell’s book, it’s hard not to be gripped by this centuries-old underdog tale, whether witnessing Quasimodo’s public humiliation at the hands of an intolerant populace or seeing Esmeralda and her fellow gypsies demonized as sub-human. In other words, this is one musical likely to resonate with anyone who’s ever felt victimized by fear-induced prejudice.
Momentum does lag in a second act that still needs work (I’d gladly see “Flight Into Egypt” fly far, far away), but there’s no denying the power of the musical’s Aida-like finale.
McGinty’s stunning work and his syzygistic partnering with Nicandros anchor this Hunchback, with all-around sensational support from fellow leads and featured players alike.
A particularly memorable Simone not only gives Esmeralda’s requisite gypsy fire and ice, there’s an innate girl-next-door sweetness to her Esme that makes us believe that in a different world, she and Quasi could be soul mates.
Jacoby’s dark, twisted, but still human Frolo, Kunze’s dashingly handsome Phoebus, and Keith A. Bearden’s charismatic Clopin are all winners as well, and like Nicandros and Simone, their pipes could fill Paris’s grandest cathedral, and then some.
Ensemble members Darian Archie, Brandon Burks, Doug Carfrae (Father Dupin), Cherrie Badajos Cruz, Emily Dauwalder, Rachel Farr, Lance Galgon (King Louis XI), Hannah Madeleine Goodman, Hadsell, William Martinez (Lieutenant Frederic Charlus), Kevin McMahon (Saint Aphrodisius), Shanon Mari Mills (Madame), Stoeke, Stephanie Thiessen, and Paul Zelhart excel each and every one of them as gypsies, gargoyles, congregants, and assorted Parisians, acing the vocal and dance challenges of musical director Dennis Castellano and choreographer Dana Solimando, each at the top of their game.
Stephen Gifford’s spectacular cathedral set transforms itself (with kudos to lighting design master Jared A. Sayeg) from sepulchral tones to vibrant festival hues when things turn “Topsy Turvy.” Marcy Froehlich’s costumes are eclectic stunners as well, with Josh Bessom providing a crystal clear mix of amplified vocals and live instrumentals. Katie McCoy’s hair and wig design and Terry Hanrahan’s props are winners too, with Joe Caruso, Jr. and Emma Bramble providing some dramatic sound effects and John B. Williford some exciting fight choreography along the way.
Casting is by Julia Flores. John W. Calder, III is production stage manager. Michael Roman is technical director.
Impressed as I was by The Hunchback Of Notre Dame’s musical theater debut two years back, that original incarnation pales in comparison to the miracles Casale, McGinty, and the La Mirada/McCoy Rigby creative team have performed. If they can get Act Two in a bit better shape, it won’t take a gypsy fortune teller’s crystal ball to see Broadway beckoning.
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.
September 17, 2016
Photos: Michael Lamont