As pure spectacle, La Jolla Playhouse’s American premiere of the stage musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an unqualified success. The tale of the outcast Quasimodo unfolds inside the belfry of Notre Dame Cathedral on a set designed by Alexander Dodge that is no less than jaw-dropping. Add the elaborate costumes of 15th-century Paris and the cathedral statues and stained-glass windows that magically come to life, and you have as visually exciting a production as has been staged in San Diego in recent memory.
If only the score was the equal of the visuals. This show, directed by Scott Schwartz, and produced in association with New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse “by special arrangement” with Disney Theatrical Productions, features the same songs composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz wrote for the 1996 animated film. That means that the anthemic “The Bells of Notre Dame” and the rip-roaring “Hellfire” (the closest thing to a show-stopper) are intermingled with saccharine ballads like “In a Place of Miracles” and “Someday.” While the sheer sweetness of the musical storytelling that typified the Disney cartoon is less on display at the Playhouse, there’s still an overload of earnestness in the romance between gypsy Esmeralda and handsome Capt. Phoebus, and the tried-and-true “triumph of the human spirit” specter lurks behind every narrative corner.
Quarrels with the score aside, Brent-Alan Huffman’s direction of a towering orchestra and the solemn vocals of the SACRA/PROFANA choral ensemble fill the theater with emotion. Noteworthy, too, are some exceptional performances, topped by stentorian-voiced Patrick Page as the villainous Dom Claude Frollo. Ciara Renee is beautiful and evocative as Esmeralda, and in the title role, Michael Arden, laudably conveying Quasimodo’s torment, humanity and heroism.
Even with these intuitive star turns, Hunchback relies heavily on exposition, straining to remind us that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and that we make our own monsters. A disappointing finale that might have been brilliant ultimately resorts to telling instead of showing. But in any case, this show’s big Broadway feel may be a harbinger of things to come.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.