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Theater Review: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”

Photo credit:
Ken Jacques

Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral isn’t exactly a small, retiring little monument, and neither is Victor Hugo’s 19th-century novel set there. The book is a long, classic story exposing the hypocrisy, bigotry, cruelty, and lust (for power and other things) of the human species.

These are heavy-duty topics that sound ideal for an opera. There has been no opera, but it has been made into two other art forms: an animated film and a musical.

Disney’s animated version in 2002 gave us music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. In 1999, a German stage version using the Menken/Schwartz score opened in Berlin, where it ran for three years. The North American, English language debut was at La Jolla Playhouse in 2014.

Moonlight Stage Productions brings back the Playhouse version through Sept. 1 at its outdoor venue in Vista. Steven Glaudini, Moonlight’s artistic director, helms the show.

The story takes place in Paris 1482, where Claude Frollo (Lance Arthur Smith), Archdeacon of Notre Dame Cathedral, gets a visit from estranged brother Jehan (Max DeLoach), dying of the pox. Jehan brings a baby he and his gypsy wife had just before she died. Jehan, too, is dying, and asks his brother to take care of the child.

Frollo intends to kill the deformed baby, but changes his mind, names him Quasimodo and raises him as his own son in the cathedral, making him the bell ringer, and restricting him to the tower.

Quasimodo may be deformed, but he’s neither stupid nor devoid of human emotion and longing. He is lonely up in that bell tower with only gargoyles to talk to, and longs to go “Out There” where it seems life is happening. He especially wants to go into town for the Feast of Fools, the one day a year when the gypsies are free to sing and dance without being hassled by authorities.

Frollo complains to Quasimodo about have to attend. Seeing an opening, Quasimodo offers to go as protection, but Frollo warns him that the people will shun him for his deformities, and tells him he should stay in his “Sanctuary.”

But both will go, and both will be entranced by the dancing of gypsy Esmeralda (Janaya Mahealani Jones). So will Captain Phoebus (Patrick Cummings), back after four years of war and in search of a little “Rest and Recreation.” Frollo enlists his help in getting rid of the city’s scum, i.e. the gypsies. This sets up the drama and tragedy to follow.

Set in 1482 in a Paris transitioning between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, this version hews more closely to the Hugo story in portraying the major characters as complex people who can’t be tagged simply “hero” or “villain.” They are human, perplexed by the times, demonstrating both good and bad behavior.

Moonlight’s artistic director Steven Glaudini has assembled a cast of powerful singing actors, who bring these characters to vibrant life on Stephen Gifford’s imposing set.

David Burnham gets star billing (and will surely pull your heartstrings) as the alternately put-upon and ignored Quasimodo, but the story is really about his relationship with Frollo, so compromised by his status as a man of the cloth and his lust for the luscious Esmeralda that he can’t seem to help making life for everyone worse by his poor decisions. Smith’s Frollo is both despicable and pitiable – a neat trick if you can do it.

Esmeralda, who shows herself to be not only beautiful but spunky and kind as well, inspires love in two other men as well: Phoebus and Quasimodo himself.

Cummings’ manly Phoebus and Jones’ spunky Esmeralda establish a relationship reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick (whom we will soon see at the Old Globe) in an exchange in which he notes that “You fight almost as well as a man” and she shoots back, “Funny, I was going to say the same thing about you.”

Quasimodo –  with a voice like an angel – inspires compassion in Esmeralda, and a connection born of their mutual outcast status. Jones has a big, beautiful voice as well, and fine stage presence.

Richard Bermudez does a fine turn as the Gypsy king Clopin, especially on “The Court of Miracles,” in which Roger Castellano’s choreography figures as well.

The story cannot – and does not – end well, but is told so convincingly by this committed and fine cast that it’s impossible not to be carried along by it. Conductor Elan McMahan’s mighty forces in the orchestra pit are a great help, and so is the fine 22-voice chorus that adds heft to the music.

Jean-Yves Tessier’s lighting, Jim Zadai’s sound and Janet Swenson’s costumes add to the visual and aural interest.

This is big, beautiful theater, wonderfully performed.

The details

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” plays through September 1, 2018 at Moonlight Amphitheatre, 1250 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista.

Wednesday through Sunday at 8 pm (gates open at 6:30 pm)

Tickets: (760) 724-2110 or moonlightstage.com