REVIEW: Moonlight's 'Hunchback' is a dark, sad tale of love and cruelty.
Review from San Diego Union Tribune
A dark musical about a deformed individual, his cruel guardian and a captivating gypsy is wonderfully brought to life due to a talented cast performing on the Moonlight Amphitheatre stage in Vista through Sept. 1.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is based on the 1831 novel of the same name by Victor Hugo and some of its music comes from the 1996 Disney animated film, but don’t let its association with Disney fool you. The film was rather dark for family-friendly fare — after all in that version the religious zealot and minister of justice Dom Claude Frollo kills the mother of then-infant Quasimodo and themes of infanticide, lust, damnation, genocide and sin are explored.
In this stage version, Dom Claude Frollo (wonderfully played by Lance Arthur Smith) does not murder Quasimodo’s mother — how he ends up becoming the orphan hunchback’s guardian is a twist — but his cruelty in the name of “kindness” to the outcast is just as diabolical in nature.
The stage show, mostly set in 1482 Paris, combines elements from the novel, a 1999 stage version that debuted in Germany and the 1996 film’s music by Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Newsies”) plus lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked,” “Pocahontas” and Enchanted”). This rendition debuted at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2014, but did not move to Broadway.
The music ranges from peppy tunes to more solemn offerings wonderfully performed by not only the 20 actors, but 15 musicians led by conductor Elan McMahan and a 22-member choir placed in the cathedral’s choir loft throughout the 2 1/2 hour show. Their combined voices are amazing.
The five main characters are equally as talented and their abilities — both in acting and singing — are evident. Leading them is Broadway veteran David Burnham in the title role. His portrayal of the physically deformed and emotionally abused Quasimodo was realistic and, at times, heartbreaking. Moonlight audiences might remember him as Prince Eric in “The Little Mermaid” last summer. Ranging from lighthearted moments to naive demeanor (due to his isolated upbringing) and heroic bravery, there is a lot of material for Burnham to work with while never dropping his physical stature and hampered movement required by the role. His nice voice is showcased in solo numbers such as “Out There” and “Heaven’s Light.”
Equally talented is Moonlight veteran Janaya Mahealani Jones as the gypsy Esmeralda. Between her acting, dancing and singing Jones makes it clear why three of the male characters — Frollo, Quasimodo and Capt. Phoebus de Martin (Broadway and Moonlight veteran Patrick Cummings) — are all attracted to her. Her beautiful voice is showcased in “God Help the Outcasts” and “Someday,” the latter sung with Cummings. It is a fiery, strong role and Jones is well suited for the task.
Smith plays his emotionally frigid role of Frollo wonderfully and is given an opportunity to vocally shine in numbers such as “Sanctuary.” Cummings is equally charming as the soldier intent on fulfilling his mission until love prompts him to have a change of heart. Rounding out the group of notables is Moonlight veteran Richard Bermudez as Clopin Trouillefou, a gypsy who as the show’s storyteller presents the tale to the audience.
Visually, the show is stunning. Through the use of video at pivotal moments, Moonlight’s producing artistic director Steven Glaudini (who directed the show) was able to present scenes — such as fire — that otherwise would have been impossible to realistically portray. There is also a nice set change for the cathedral that helps one imagine the characters traversing from the ground level to the belfry that Quasimodo calls home.
Though much of the show is thematically dark, there are several light moments, including many of the scenes involving the gypsies. In all, it is a show worth seeing.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is playing most evenings through Sept. 1 at Moonlight Amphitheatre, 1250 Vale Terrace Drive in Vista. Gates open for picnicking at 6:30 p.m. and the show begins at 8 p.m. Food and beverages (except alcohol) may be brought in. Dinner, snacks and drinks (including alcohol) can be purchased on site.