Does the name Quasimodo ring a bell? Victor Hugo’s deformed outcast has swung from many rafters in his day, though rarely as poignantly or as lavishly as in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Peter Parnell, Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s U.S.-premiere tuner which worked out growing pains in a 1996 Disney animated feature and 1999 Berlin engagement. At the La Jolla Playhouse it’s something of an odd duck: dark and medieval-moody, yet with exuberant Broadway roots plainly showing. Intensely emotional and sparked by three stellar performances, “Hunchback” is an intriguing bet as a long-term prospect, but it certainly sets its audience to cheering at the finale.
Someone, probably helmer Scott Schwartz, has clearly been studying “Peter and the Starcatcher” (and why not? It too kicked off in La Jolla), for “Hunchback” is right out of that hit’s playbook in merging sumptuous visuals with bare-bones platform staging conventions.
While thesps change roles before our eyes and narrate the action in third-person direct address, Alexander Dodge’s huge setpieces roam, a vast row of cathedral bells descends and Howell Binkley’s lighting drenches the stage in the deep blues and reds of Chartres stained glass.
On top of all that, cast voices are augmented by some 40-odd members of local chorus Sacra/Profana, ensconced against the back wall to lend startling depth to the Menken/Schwartz religioso numbers. (Not to mention surely the first-ever entr’acte sung entirely in Latin.)
The extravagance, fortunately, is justified by the story, whose engine is the dread Archdeacon Frollo (Patrick Page). His mission is to cleanse Paris of lechery and foreigners, which is to say he’s crusading against gypsies, which is to say he’s wracked with desire for the lovely Esmeralda (Ciara Renee). Little does he know his belltower-banished nephew (Michael Arden) has an eye on her as well, though a more innocent one.
Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s strongest numbers explicitly tackle the twin themes of social conscience and individual moral responsibility, from the celebration of an out-of-control, witless populace in “Topsy-Turvy” to Esmeralda’s prayer “God Help the Outcasts.” Unified by the through-line of the “Bells of Notre Dame” narrative ballad and individual character motifs, this may not be the catchiest score either songwriter has contributed to, but it’s a serious and effective one.
The main roles smack of familiar types. In a “Les Miz” touch, Frollo is poised to out-Javert Javert for ruthless self-righteousness, down to the “Stars”-like, wickedness-justifying anthem “Hellfire.” Esmeralda is an Aldonza waiting for a monk of La Mancha to redeem her, while Quasimodo himself, pure soul misunderstood through misshapen body, may be too close to “The Elephant Man” for comfort, right down to the theme expressed in song: “What makes a monster and what makes a man?”
But Scott Schwartz and thesps overcome the traps. Page’s gradual descent into unmitigated evil is believable, complex and blessedly underplayed. Renee’s sizzling gypsy — choreographed with lighthearted artistry by Chase Brock — resists cliche through genuine vulnerability and charm.
And Arden is a revelation in the title role. His delicately communicative physicality (perhaps derived from past work with Deaf West theater company) is wholly of a piece with a remarkably wide emotional range. The laughs he earns are warm and in context, while his “I want” songs are the clarion calls of a tortured soul, devoid of any “American Idol”-influenced vocal pyrotechnics. He is splendid.
The planks-and-passion concept is inconsistent: While sometimes the ensemble changes personas in front of us, other times they emerge fully costumed in traditional doubling mode. The movie’s singing-and-dancing gargoyles have wisely been jettisoned for actors whispering to Quasimodo through statuary, but Alejo Vietti’s gray kerchiefs identifying them as stone don’t sell the convention.
Taste issues also emerge. The fourth leg of Hugo’s romantic quadrangle, Captain Phoebus (Andrew Samonsky), comes off, as he did on screen, as a typical swaggering Disney hunk of the Gaston variety, offering blatant beefcake and too-modern wisecracks. He and an excruciating act-two opener, in which a beheaded saint offers Quasimodo advice, seem utterly out of place in the pervading pious context.