HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME brings Paris to Moonlight Stage

Moonlight Stage Productions invites you to spend a summer evening in 15th century Paris, with their production of HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. Who doesn’t want to go to Paris in the summer?

Like the animated movie of the same name (based on the Victor Hugo novel) the show opens with a gorgeous choral opening of “The Bells of Notre Dame” and paints a beautiful picture of layered voices, precision, and a rich tapestry woven from the voices of these talented perfumers.  Menken’s choral music is classically influenced, intricate, and soars through the air thanks to the talented 22 person choir.

Photo credit: The company of Moonlight Stage Productions’ “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” (Adriana Zuniga-Williams)

The world we are welcomed into by Clopin (Richard Bermudez) who not only is the leader of the gypsy troupe in Paris, but also acts as a de facto narrator or the show.   It is 15th century Paris, and the cathedral of Notre Dame towers above the city with its combination of majestic beauty and imposing gravitas.

As we learn in the prologue, Dom Claude Frollo (Lance Arthur Smith) is the very severe and devout head of this church, who takes his role as moral and spiritual intermediary very seriously. When his brother dies, leaving Frollo with a misshapen, half gypsy nephew to take care of, the first thing Frollo does is install him in the bell tower of the church.

When Quasimodo (David Burnham) is older, he yearns to experience more of the outside; a thing he has been forbidden to do by Frollo.  When he sneaks out he encounters the alluring Esmeralda (Janaya Mehealani Jones) a gypsy girl who also captivates Frollo to the point of obsession.

Frollo’s fascination grows more intense while Esmeralda and ex-soldier Captain Phoebus (Patrick Cummings) find a spark between them, and Quasimondo gets stuck in the friendzone.  This isn’t so much a twisted love triangle as it is a warped quadrilateral.  (Who said geometry class wouldn’t come in handy when writing reviews?)

Smith’s powerful voice and severity in tone brings Frollo’s twisted mix of religious fervor and menacing obsession to life, his turn on the song “Hellfire” is a true standout.  As Quasimodo, Burnham has a sweet innocence about him, and he has the talent for the characters emotive numbers “Out There” and “Heaven’s Light”.

Jones has a strong and confidents voice which fits the headstrong Esmeralda.  Bermudez brings some much needed levity with “The Court of Miracles”, and Cummings is solid as the soldier Pheobus.

The set by Stephen Gifford is a gorgeous cathedral that simultaneously reaches for the sky and can feel claustrophobic at the same time. Plus thosethere are those massive and famous bells that ocassionally descend from the rafters to make their presence known.

Lighting by Jean-Yves Tessier allows for a lot of literal play between shadows and light to reflect that of the moral quandary being portrayed on stage.  Some excellent projections are used, though they could be used less to greater effect.

Pulling from the novel and the movie music to make a stage adaption does leave this plot and tone feeling a bit disjointed and melodramatic.  Like a mirror to another Hugo book and musical LES MIS, Frollo is as obsessed and convinced of his moral superiority as Javert, but instead of justice and the law, Frollo is wrestling with much darker motivations.

The animated film was lighter in tone, thanks in part to some fun and festive songs, and lot of comedic help from gargoyles and a friendly goat side kick.  But it did not dismiss the very adult obsession Frollo had for Esmeralda.  Yet, when bringing it to stage the more up-tempo songs feel weighed down by the plot, the gargoyles are no longer comic relief, and there is not a sidekick (adorable goat or otherwise) to be found.

Told with a heavy dose of narration, instead of action and an overreliance of projections on a scrim can feel a bit shorthanded in the storytelling.  All of this combined can be too mature for some, and too melodramatic for others.

The real star of this show is the music by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz.  The cast is supported by a talented orchestra lead by Musical Director and Conductor Elan McMahan.

When these songs are sung in harmony by this choir and cast, this show doesn’t just sing, it can ring out resoundingly like those bells of Notre Dame.

HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME is playing at Moonlight Stage through September 1st.  For ticket and show time information go to www.Moonlightstage.com

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