“Come one, come all—leave your looms and milking stools! Coop the hens and pen the mules!” To inaugurate their 2016-2017 season, “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” in La Mirada California, in association with “McCoy-Rigby Entertainment” are unveiling the Los Angeles area debut of the long-awaited stage adaptation of “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame”! Based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 gothic novel and infused with songs from the hit Disney Film, this brand new musical is the only stage-collaboration from two acknowledged masters of the modern American Musical Theatre: Alan Menken (“Little Shop Of Horrors” Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” & “Beauty and the Beast”,) who provided the music, and Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked”, “Pippin” & “Godspell”) who provided the lyrics; moreover, the new libretto is by Peter Parnell. The production marks the 23rd anniversary of “Mc Coy-Rigby Entertainment’s” involvement at the theatre in addition to the 39th anniversary of the “La Mirada Theatre” itself—and what a way to celebrate these meritorious occasions! It’s exceptionally rare and thrilling when you go to a show and it’s not what you expect—it’s something light-years better! A far more nuanced and dramatic retelling of Hugo’s epic (and at times profoundly poignant) tale, this new musical is most assuredly not just another stage-translation of a “Disney cartoon”, remaining closer in plot to the classic book on which it is based. True, it still delightfully showcases the film’s Oscar-nominated score–even introducing several stunning new songs; however, this interpretation transcends that animated film, providing a deeper back-story to the characters and offering a significantly more substantial and sophisticated plot.
Immortalized in numerous movies, tele-plays and now the musical stage, this bittersweet tale is set in Medieval Paris, and introduces us to “Quasimodo”, the hapless bell-ringer of the city’s renowned “Notre Dame Cathedral”, whose capacity for love and unexpected moral heroism is strong, and whose only crime is having been born physically a bit different from the rest (we’re told early on that even the mocking name he was given is said to mean “half-formed”.) The story opens inside the church as the chorus intone the stately “The Bells Of Notre Dame”, during which earlier events are related involving two orphaned brothers named “Frollo” who were taken in “by the grace of Notre Dame”: “Dom-Claude”, the elder while his younger sibling was “Jehan”. As the song continues, we learn Dom-Claude took the path of (supposed) virtue and righteousness, while the other became a carouser who pursued wanton pleasures which eventually had him banished. Just before his ultimate, untimely demise, “Jehan” called on his brother to take care of an unfortunate baby with a markedly misshapen spine, who would grow up to become our hero, “Quasimodo” (“It’s too late for me,” Jehan acknowledges, “but if you’ve truly discovered charity at this late date, there’s some you can help”; “Oh Lord, you’ve sent me a test” Frollo then asserts grimly; “This child is my cross to bear!”) Years pass when into the life of this star-crossed young man—now the cathedral’s lonely and introverted bell-ringer–comes “Esmeralda”, a beautiful young (if spirited) Gypsy girl, who will change his life forever, but not before also attracting the attention of “Frollo”—now the uber-pious (and uber-bigoted) “Arch Deacon” of the titular basilica. “Remember what I taught you Quasimodo,” he snaps lest his charge get any ideas above his lowly station: “You are deformed and you are ugly—and these are crimes for which the world shows little pity…why invite their calumny and consternation? Stay in here, be faithful to me!” Yes, the gargoyles do make an appearance in this outing too, but, contrary to the movie, none of them are named “Laverne”! Instead, there any many more than just the three depicted in the Disney film, and thanks to some subtle but very clever costuming by Marcy Froehlich, they all comprise a kind of Greek chorus–speaking to, and advising Quasimodo at various turns (also signing their lines as well as articulating them,) but only he can hear or react to them. So too, “Quasi’s” trademark cry of “Sanctuary” is also heard at one key point—but not where you might expect!
For the very first time, “Quasimodo”–who is deaf in the original novel, is played here by John McGinty, an actor who is deaf in real-life. McGinty is a decidedly handsomer “hunchback” than has been previously seen by the likes of Lon Chaney, Charles Laughton, Anthony Hopkins or even Tom Hulce’s animated representation. Brilliantly commanding the stage, the actor also has at his disposal more tools for communication frequently overlooked by other actors. Along with his voice, these also include his expressions, his physicality and mannerisms (including the use of sign language.) Each are utilized to terrific advantage and magnificent results. He’s paired with Dino Nicandros as his singing voice and the intermittent verbalization of his inner-monologue. Indeed, one of many innovative conventions of Casale’s staging has it so Nicandros is always nearby in any given scene but slightly removed from the action, so he can provide sung lines and thoughts when needed while still keeping the focus on “Quasimodo”. This makes for a unique and rewarding symbiotic relationship between the two performers, and is an unqualified triumph for them both. This is demonstrated at the on-set with “Quasimodo’s” opening salvo, “Out There”, which is a master-stroke of song, signing and music. In it, it’s hard NOT to feel McGinty’s exuberance, and by its conclusion you can bet we’re square in his corner–rooting for both the character and the actor playing him from then on; we also can’t help but commiserate during his mesmerizing enactment of the “Heaven Light”, as “Quasimodo”, having met and been entranced by “Esmeralda’, at last dares to hope for better things for himself. After intermission, “Made Of Stone”, immediately followed by “Flight Into Egypt” (where our boy, in his darkest hour, finally resolves to take a stand) are both nothing less than dynamic!
Every bit as remarkable is Cassie Simone as “Esmeralda”. Herself gifted with a distinct talent to translate sincerity and feelings into musical phrases with her pristine and affecting voice, she most definitely wins several prominent victories with this role, starting with the sprightly “Rhythm Of The Tambourine” (–and boy howdy, what an entrance!) This is followed shortly thereafter by the score’s iconic “God Bless The Outcast” which could be a modern-day anthem to tolerance and is particularly relevant for today’s audiences. Still later, she prevails again with the introductory verses of “Top Of The World”. Mark Jacoby is similarly spot-on as the excruciatingly pious “Dom-Claude Frollo”. “We’re all born sinners” he spits at one point; later pontificating “God loves even a monster.” If anything, “Frollo” is given the very best lines of any stage villain in recent memory, but there’s so much more to love–or love to hate–about Jacoby’s incredible portrayal. He presents a man who, repressed to the point of madness and obsession, has fallen from his purer faith and higher ideals; completely unable to entertain even the shade of an admission of his lust for Esmeralda, as with all great tragedies, in the end he is consumed by it. Along the way though, he delivers a riveting performance, putting his lavish operatic voice into the service of such songs as the opening “The Bells Of Notre Dame” and “Rest And Recreation”, before pulling out all the stops for “Hell Fire”—which he bestows with such virtuosity and unrestrained intensity that it ranks as a bona fide showstopper (if it doesn’t stop your heart first!)
Keith A. Bearden too, proves to be a hyper-kinetic force to behold as “Clopin” the leader of the Gypsies. In this dramatization, “Clopin” is really more a ‘king of thieves’ and those who live by their wits than the jolly ‘clown prince” of the Disney version. He does a laudable job leading the vibrant group endeavor, “Topsy-Turvy”–celebrating the jovial “Festival Of Fools” which our young hero inadvertently gets caught up in (and ultimately punished for.) Later, Bearden displays a somewhat more sinister side with “The Court Of Miracles” wherein he breezes “We have a method for spies and intruders—rather like hornets protecting their hive; here in ‘the court of miracles’ where it’s a miracle if you get out alive!” Equally commendable is Eric Kunze as “Phoebus”—the dashing soldier who comes to Paris to assume his post as a Captain of the Cathedral Guard, before himself quickly becoming smitten with Esmeralda. Kunze too, skillfully takes the lead—demonstrating some pretty impressive notes of his own—with his introductory salvo, “Rest And Recreation”; then, together with Ms. Simone, their prison duet, “Someday” (as each contemplates their uncertain fates) is touchingly conveyed, making for an eleventh hour success for both. Not to be overlooked either, is the full choir placed high aloft on either side of the stage which stays on-stage the entire time, adding awe-inspiring melodic luminosity to the already lush, emotionally rich score and sumptuous choral arrangements.
Without a doubt, a major asset to the production is Glenn Casale’s direction which is always perceptive and involving (—and now and again, even sly and seductive!) His pace is initially deliberate and measured, allowing the audience to fully take in the substantial scope of the epic tale that’s being introduced. Once things get under way though, he increases the pace—shrewdly engineering a few thrills and chills in all the best (and frequently unexpected) places. By the climax of the second act, rest assured, you will be left breathless! Although the production has numerous moments of substantial charm, there’s few traces of out-and-out ‘cuteness’ or pointless (if decorative) cloying to be found. Gladly though, it provides plenty of opportunities for some effervescent dance interludes and in this regard Dana Solimando’s choreography doesn’t simply rise to the challenge, it eclipses it! Beginning with the ebullient group venture “Topsy-Turvy”, vivacious movement fills the stage with a welcome bit of cheer, (efficaciously relieving the solemnity of the previous scenes) There’s also the sultry, exotic whirls, twirls and gyrations of the serving ‘wenches’ which enliven “Thai Moi Piyas: The Tavern Song” (—another one of the excellent new numbers written specifically for this theatrical rendering.) “I cannot bear to watch but I cannot turn away” Frollo despairs while observing the goings-on from the shadows. Likewise, Esmeralda’s introduction, “Rhythm Of The Tambourine” is a joyous pulsating crowd-pleaser that shows off Ms. Simone’s comparably dexterous skills as a dancer to boot. All of this is aided immeasurably by the spectacular Scenic Design by Stephen Gifford that entrancingly re-creates a medieval world in all its gritty, splendiferous, or primitive grandeur—whether it be the near-otherworldly splendor of the world-famous cathedral or the lurid, sometimes ominous allure of the streets of the not-yet-fully-developed Paris. All of these various moods are complimented and even vividly enhanced by Jared Sayeg’s Lighting Design.
“What makes a monster and what makes a man?” asks the choir at the outset; whatever you might be expecting—comic, tragic or otherwise—the answer goes way beyond it! (In fact, we’re just sorry a thunderous standing ovation was the only thing the audience could give at the production’s final curtain!) Having opened Saturday, September 17th, “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame” is slated to run through Sunday, October 9th, 2016 at “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” located at: 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada, California. Show-times are Wednesdays & Thursdays at 7:30 PM; Fridays at 8:00 PM; Saturdays at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM with Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM. Tickets can be purchased on the web, via “The La Mirada Theatre’s” website at: www.lamiradatheatre.com or by calling the La Mirada Theatre Box Office at (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310. (Special Student, Senior, Child and Group discounts are available.)
Production Stills by Michael Lamont Courtesy of David Elzer At Demand PR (www.demandpr.com), “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” (www.lamiradatheatre.com) & McCoy-Rigby Entertainment. Special Thanks To: David Elzer, Tom McCoy, Cathy Rigby, Glenn Casale, Dana Solimando & To The Cast & Crew Of “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” & “McCoy-Rigby Entertainment’s” 2016 Production Of “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame” For Making This Story Possible