The Hunchback of Notre Dame
music by Alan Menkin
lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
book by Peter Parnell
directed by Rob Winn Anderson
starring Matt Rothenberg, E. Mani Cadet, and Adia J. Seckel
based on a novel by Victor Hugo
Loved the performance, hated the plot. Originally a novel aimed at saving old buildings, “Hunchback” inspired over a dozen musical adaptations. Then Disney got its hooks into the story, and eventually this musical version took the public’s fancy. It’s a complex, exciting show, but it’s loose focus means we are often confused about who to cheer for.
Quasimodo (Rothenberg) is the illegitimate son of Dom Frollo’s (Cadet) brother Jehan (Michael Cleary). Jehan drinks himself to death and Frollo takes the deformed Quasimodo and installs him as the bell ringer in Notre Dame. Years pass by, and during the Feast of Fools Quasi goes out on the town only to be beaten for his ugliness. But he finds love; Esmeralda (Seckel) is a gypsy girl with some cheap magic skills and a knack for attracting men. Quasi isn’t her only intrigue, Frollo has a go at her as does dashing captain Phoebus (Benjamin Ludwig) and therein lies the heart of this script’s weakness: Just who is supposed to bed who, and can we ever figure out why?
Joe Klug’s scenic design is to die for: a giant rose window hangs over the stage, gargoyles leer from above, and four puppet gargoyles give questionable advice to Quasi. The space is full of smoke and on-stage action never stops. The sword fights are promising, and the vocals excellent. Rothenberg emits a bundle of energy and makes the lead role not so much a subject of pity as a man who explores all his options, limited as they may be. Seckel notionally holds the position of maximum public scorn, but she’s able to seduce whomsoever she desires. Do we want her paired with the trapped Quasi, the dashing Phoebus, or the evil Frollo? That spinning wheel of options is worse than no options at all. Go for the spectacle, and meditate on the carefree, commitment-free life of the gypsies. They are the chaos offsetting the order of church and army, and thus the most appealing roles for a short-term fling like any evening at the theater.