Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Review - The Hunchback of Notre Dame is Disney's Latest Masterpiece

Michael Arden as Quasimodo with the Congregation in the La Jolla Playhouse production, Photo by Kevin Berne
I'm going to start this review at the end. If you haven't seen this show and you have the ability to get to the Paper Mill Playhouse before it closes on April 5th then don't bother reading this, just get to their website (or call them) and get any seats they have left right now!  Need to drive across the country, or even fly around the world? If you can afford it, do it!  It's been almost ten years since I walked out of a theatre and went straight back to the box office to buy more tickets and I have NEVER seen the same show twice in one day before.

On leaving the matinee my wife and I literally walked back to the station to make sure the trains ran late enough then went straight back to the theatre to get tickets for the evening performance.  Yes, there's been a lot of talk of The Hunchback of Notre Dame going to Broadway, and I wish with all my heart for that to happen, but there's no guarantees.  We'd both waited years to see this and knew that, even if it does go to Broadway, it could be years before we see it again and we weren't ready to let it go after just one performance.  It's also a show that demands a second viewing.  After an extremely insightful talkback session with the cast after the matinee I found myself taking in small details and nuances that I'd missed the first time.

The first thing that strikes you on entering the theatre is Alexander Dodge's magnificent set.  As there is no stage curtain the majesty of Notre Dame greets you the moment you step into the auditorium.  This is not your standard Disney set, it's a black and white checkered floor with wooden beams and walkways adorned by stone gargoyles, the only colour coming from the magnificently recreated stained glass window that looks down on congregation from above.  And the bells, when they come down and are rang by Quasimodo, are simply breath taking.  The realism of the set is a reflection of the real, human focus of the production.  Whilst you can recognise the structure of the Disney film in this new musical, this is a more mature telling of Victor Hugo's classic story and much stronger for it as the focus is placed almost entirely on the four leads and their interlocking story and relationships.

The second thing that strikes you is the sound.  The choir take their places and the familiar choral opening of "The Bells of Notre Dame" begins, growing stronger as the congregation (ensemble) and cast, led by Erik Liberman's Clopin, all enter cloaked in hooded robes.  The onstage choir (Continuo Arts Symphonic Chorus for this production) is used to fabulous effect throughout the entire production, including a wonderful Entr'acte in Latin, and just brings a added richness to what is already Alan Menken's best score.  In contrast to the choir the ensemble is relatively small, made up of just 14 people who seamlessly transition from Parisians to Romani to Gargoyles to Cathedral Guards, as well as portraying several secondary characters throughout the piece, sometimes even within the same scene.  Everyone sounds fantastic.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame contains some of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz's best work, it's rich, powerful and beautiful, and it's brought to life effortlessly by this incredibly talented cast.  Put bluntly, this show sounds gorgeous.  It needs to go to Broadway for that alone, the world deserves a cast album of this show.

And what a cast it is!  The first character we're introduced to is Erik Liberman's Clopin Trouillefou.  Clopin's role seems both smaller and larger than it was in the film.  He is no longer the main narrator of the piece as that role is now filled by the ensemble, but he feels like a fuller character with real relationships with both Esmeralda and, surprisingly, with Phoebus.  I love his character arc with Phoebus, it's small and only in a few scenes but I think it works extremely well.  Erik Liberman has added greater depth to Clopin. Whilst he's still the theatrical King of the Gypsies we now get to see the truth behind the facade of a man who cares deeply for his people.  He doesn't even display anger at the prejudices that his people are subjected to, instead Liberman's Clopin has a weary, reluctant, acceptance of the world he must live in.  It's a role that allows Liberman to be both theatrically over the top and subtle and nuanced and he embraces it.

One of the greatest changes for the stage adaptation is the fleshing out of Frollo.  Instead of the outright villain of the animated classic, Frollo here is introduced as a good man and Patrick Page plays his tragic downfall masterfully.  I've wanted to see Patrick since seeing a video of him singing "Be Prepared", there's a reason he's considered one of Broadway's greatest villain actors and he does not disappoint.  His "Hellfire" is one of the highlights of the show, staged simply but incredibly effectively with Page visibly shaking as he kneels praying at the start.  His Frollo is a lesson in how fanaticism is self defeating as Frollo is ultimately corrupted not by Esmeralda but by his own self righteousness.  It's an incredibly complex performance that has you both loathing Frollo and his actions but also sympathising with him and wanting to see him redeem himself because you know he has it within him to be a good man.
Michael Arden as Quasimodo and the Congregation, Photo by Matthew Murphy

Where do I even start with Michael Arden?  I think the greatest compliment I can pay him is to simply say he IS Quasimodo.  From the moment he enters in "The Bells of Notre Dame", asking the audience "what makes a monster and what makes a man" as he transforms into the titular Hunchback before our eyes he is magnificent in both voice and physicality, embodying the role in a way I've never seen before and giving spine tingling renditions of "Out There" and "Made of Stone" (the latter of which moved me to tears in a way it never has before).  It was fascinating to listen to him speak on how he created the role during the cast talkback, where he spoke of how he tied a belt around his knees and examined how that affected his movement and posture.  Watching the show a second time with that knowledge you could see it in his movement.  His performance was a master class in character creation and if/when this show does go to Broadway I'm certain there's a Tony Award in his future.

Andrew Samonsky's Phoebus de Martin is another character who benefits greatly from the musical's more mature tone and increased character depth.  No longer the shining knight of the film, Phoebus is now flawed and haunted by his time at the front.  His introduction in "Rest and Recreation" now includes a beautifully haunting moment as Phoebus recalls his "four years at the front" and vows never to return to that life.  Andrew Samonsky perfectly portrays Phoebus' transformation from haunted soldier to man reborn through his love for Esmeralda, and their relationship is arguably the most realistic and heart breaking that Disney have ever put on stage, venturing into dark places that challenge the audience as well as the characters.

Ciara Renee as Esmeralda with the Congregation, Photo by Matthew Murphy

Whilst Arden's Quasimodo is clearly the lead, it's Ciara Renee's Esmeralda who is the thread that binds all the other characters together and her actions that drive the story forward.  Renee brings Esmeralda to life with a perfect balance of compassion, determination and fragility.  It's easy to see why Quasimodo, Frollo and Phoebus all become obsessed with her as it's a mesmerising performance that will literally move you to tears in parts of the show.  Her duet with Andrew Samonsky's Phoebus is one of those moments.  Cut from the film (ultimately replaced by "God Help the Outcasts") but restored here, "Someday" is at once grand in its message but intimate in its telling, and sung beautifully by Renee and Samonsky.
One of director Scott Schwartz's aims with this piece was to make this a more intimate telling of Quasimodo's story and to bring it to life using classic theatrical techniques that would have been around in the period during which the story is set.  Now, if you've ever heard the cast recording for the Berlin production of Der Glockner Von Notre Dame you'll know that intimate probably isn't the first word that comes to mind.  That was an epic, large scale telling of the story and the cast recording (even when you barely know a word of German) sounds glorious!  I don't mind admitting that when I heard this new production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame was going to be a more intimate production I was worried that some of that would be lost.  It's not.  The music is as rich as ever thanks to an incredible cast and on stage choir.  The intimacy comes from a greater focus on character and story over technical special effects.  There's no jaw dropping special effects like Aladdin's flying carpet in this production, but the staging, whilst simple, is incredibly effective with pews and balustrade doubling as doorways and prison cells.  There's a moment in "Out There" where members of the congregation lift a bench that Quasimodo is standing on and he slides down it, instantly calling to mind the waterway he slid down in the film.  There's never any confusion with what's going on or what is being represented and it keeps your focus squarely on the actors and the story being told.

The choreography, by Chase Brock, is likewise simple but effective with Esmeralda's dance in "Rhythm of the Tambourine" being as seductive and enchanting as it needs to be.  The lighting by Howell Binkley is equally superb but perhaps best viewed from a slight distance.  We were sat in the un-tiered front rows the first time we saw the show and I missed some of the effects (like when the sunlight shines on Quasimodo during "Out There"), viewed further back the second time I was able to take in the full stage and the full effect of the set, choreography and lighting.

Patrick Page as Frollo with the congregation in the La Jolla Playhouse production, Photo by Kevin Berne
It took The Hunchback of Notre Dame almost 15 years to make it from Berlin to America and I can safely say that it was more worth the wait.  In fact the only criticism I could possibly give is that the narration (which I thought worked extremely well) slightly slows the climatic build up of the music in "Esmeralda" and "Finale Ultimo" BUT that's only in comparison to the Berlin cast album which I've got so used to listening to, without that to compare it to I wouldn't have even thought of it and there's an extremely successful bit of narration from Quasimodo that's been added right at the end that I thought was extremely touching.  The show is, quite simply, a masterpiece and Disney Theatrical needs to bring it to Broadway as soon as they possibly can.  But, being an incredible piece of theatre isn't enough for this show, it's also contains an extremely powerful message that is as relevant today as it ever was.  We all have good and evil, monster and man, within us, we all have differences, "flaws" that we'd like to keep hidden from the rest of the world if we could.  The world would truly be a better place if we could all accept, as Esmeralda does, to not turn the other way, that "it has to be somebody's business" and accept each other for who we are.  This is a show that needs to be seen.

1 comment:

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