Given the epic sweep of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” it was only a matter of time before the curtain rose on a staged musical adaptation. Dennis DeYoung, best known as a member of ’70s rock band Styx, joins the burgeoning list of rockers attempting theatrical works and turns out a behemoth show that is perhaps more extravagant than profound.
After more than five years of various workshops around the country, this version, directed by Mac Pirkle (with score, book and lyrics by DeYoung), solidly translates Hugo’s tale of the lecherous priest, beautiful gypsy and ridiculed hunchback into an exciting, if grandiose, musical.
Although its excellent ensemble of Parisian gypsies, soldiers, peasants and bourgeoisie sing, dance and dazzle in the square of Notre Dame Cathedral, the book’s transitions between scenes are problematic. Whenever a song ends or a character speaks a line of dialogue, the emotion of the moment dwindles, and the show has to gear back up for the next big number.
DeYoung’s better achievement is as composer and lyricist, and his use of strings and accordion in the gypsy music (with the aid of James Vukovich’s musical direction and Michael Morris’ orchestrations) sound fresh on the stage. He bravely adapts church tones into such stirring songs as “Ave Maria” and “Bless Me Father.”
With an aria-laden score that could easily flummox lesser singers, the cast of principals brings the music to life. Mike Eldred gives a soul-piercing performance as the reviled bell-ringer Quasimodo, singing with a crisp tenor that conveys the inner purity of his character. James Barbour is a powerful Father Frollo, lending humanity to a character that, as written, is too nasty too early.
As Esmerelda, Ana Maria Andricain is on stage more than any other performer and is burdened with the most spoken dialogue (not to mention a costume made of heavy brocade). Andricain shines, however, in the later abduction scenes in which she confronts Frollo as the killer of her lover.
Given this strong cast, and the audience’s ovations for the thrilling stage extravaganza, DeYoung is given a noble first production of his “Hunchback.” It’s up to him to bring out the story’s heart.