Musical theater stagecraft scales dizzying heights — literally — in the Berlin world premiere of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” the first Disney animated film to become a stage musical since “The Lion King” charged its way into Broadway record books. Will Quasimodo follow where Simba dared to roar? That much remains unclear, since Anglo-American audiences may demand a show as emotionally involving as it is technically involved. As a symbol of the newly confident and international German capital-to-be, “Hunchback” soars high as it introduces an American musical theater revelation in the stooped form of 23-year-old newcomer Drew Sarich, who plays the title role. But only time, further tinkering and some inevitable recasting will tell whether a show whose design often reaches to the skies is ready to take off.
It’s easy to see the appeal of a stage “Hunchback,” especially to the Hamburg-based company Stella, which can count the not thematically dissimilar “Phantom of the Opera” and “Beauty and the Beast” among its German-lingo successes. Who is Quasimodo, after all, but this show’s equivalent of the Phantom or the Beast — a societal misfit locked in a world of yearning who may or may not get the girl? To that end, it’s scant surprise that James Lapine’s intimate yet massive production — achieved with several of his erstwhile “Into the Woods” collaborators — seems suspended intriguingly in limbo between a faux-musical blockbuster along the lines of the ’80s Brit hits (“Les Miz,” after all, shares the same source novelist, Victor Hugo) and a transcription, a la “Lion King,” marking its own breathless aesthetic stampede.
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What’s missing is the imprint of a director, like Julie Taymor, who brings to her work a purely joyous love of theater capable of moving millions. Or maybe it’s just that Lapine’s passions are in fact too private (as the emotionally hermetic “Passion” in fact suggested) to deliver the affective goods on a scale to match a physical production that leaves no doubt how the show’s historic $25 million budget was spent.
The design is likely to be the show’s talking point in any language, coupling as it does the best of British and American talent with a new $100 million-plus playhouse specifically adapted to accommodate the demands of the piece.
The aquamarine stage curtain, Gothic tracery encoded within it, rises to reveal set designer Heidi Ettinger’s ever-shifting array of cubes that join Jerome Sirlin’s projections to conjure the medieval world of the Parisian bell tower inhabited by Sarich’s misshapen orphan Quasimodo, his unyielding master Frollo (Norbert Lamla) and a trio of very chatty gargoyles who lead this show’s answer to “Be Our Guest,” the sprightly “A Guy Like You.”
Among its many wonders, the design — Rick Fisher’s jets of light included — works by intimation and not intimidation, while enfolding within it a triangular love story that finds Quasimodo and Frollo vying for the gypsy girl Esmeralda (Judy Weiss), whose fate — in marked contrast to the Disney film — lies with neither man. (Complicating the geometry is the gallant Phoebus, played by Fredrik Lycke, this show’s answer to “Les Miz’s” Marius.) While platforms shoot out from the sides of the set, little gets played on the stage itself, apart from the occasional scene of roisterous street life that Lar Lubovitch’s choreography makes somewhat self-consciously “colorful.”
The prevailing tone is far and away the most somber of the three Disney film-to-stage shows yet. That’s in keeping with the Gothic intensity of Hugo’s 1831 novel, if not with the facetious screenplay of three years ago whose central character, the relentlessly cutesy “Quasi,” bears scant relation to the afflicted figure Sarich so memorably cuts here, complete with a soaring tenor that suggests him as a potential Phantom.
Sarich benefits from some of the evening’s most singular images, among them the sudden, stark sight of Quasimodo hoisting Esmeralda aloft after a rescue that has the performer vaulting about the set in fearless pursuit of his not-quite-prize.
So why isn’t the show as a whole more affecting? To this non-German speaker, the answer has little to do with language. (Many operas have thrilled countless listeners in tongues not spoken by their audience.) The answer lies in part with Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken’s Oscar-nommed score (much fortified for the stage show), which is actually at its best in the Weillian strains of Clopin’s opener, “The Bells of Notre Dame,” sinuously delivered by Jens Janke, later doubling as the Gypsy King.
Elsewhere, away from its liturgical impulses (and notwithstanding the enduring hummability of “Esmeralda”), the music tilts toward the generic. That’s a shame, given the conditions that Schwartz’s lyrics describe, complete with references to ethnic cleansing that would seem guaranteed to strike a chord with audiences in Germany and beyond.
Furthermore, neither Lamla nor Weiss fully embodies his or her point on an amorous spectrum that comes commendably presented in shades of gray rather than the simplistic black-and-white one might expect.
Replacing originally cast Steve Barton (a “Phantom” alum), Lamla makes a rather relentlessly dour Frollo, a man in thrall to lustful impulses that seem to surprise even himself. Local girl Weiss simply isn’t up to the expressive demands of a fought-over heroine; for all the brouhaha Esmeralda engenders, Weiss remains a blank.
That may not matter to a public caught up in a buzz that goes beyond the hype of a Broadway or West End premiere to embrace issues of national pride. (The show received a long ovation at the perf caught.) There’s no doubt that this “Hunchback” carries real heft here, even as one awaits with genuine interest the show’s (and the incomparable Sarich’s) next, no-doubt mammoth, step.