LOGAN — The musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with songs by the same team behind the 1996 Disney film, Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, first premiered in Berlin in 1999, where it enjoyed no little success. Note that this musical is not billed as “Disney’s” anything (as with Beauty and the Beast et al.), but rather is “based on the Victor Hugo novel and songs from the Disney film.” In addition to an expanded score by the movie’s songwriters, the German production even boasted a book by frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine. Though the book of the most current iteration is by Peter Parnell, I considered all these points to be auspicious omens. And so, when the curtain rose on Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre’s production to reveal a Greek chorus in monk robes singing in Latin, I experienced some moments of optimism. Alas, how quickly they faded. As loath as I am to give in to the obvious comparison by calling this adaptation “half-formed,” it is a regrettably apt description that neither director Brad A. Carroll nor UFO&MT’s usual musical prowess have managed to overcome.
While it’s true that this Hunchback has more details in common with Hugo’s novel than the Disney movie, it definitely owes its overarching plot contours to the film. It begins with a prologue that fills out the backstory of Claude Frollo (played by Kevin Nakatani), the archdeacon of Notre Dame Cathedral in the late-fifteenth century. It recounts how he came to rise within the clerical hierarchy and take in his deceased brother’s infant son. Repulsed by the child’s appearance, he names him “Quasimodo” and raises him in isolation to be the titular bellringer at Notre Dame, solely dependent on Frollo for everything.
Years later, during the annual Festival of Fools, Quasimodo (Ezequiel Andrew) ventures out of his bell tower for the first time to experience the celebration. When Clopin (Stefan Espinosa) and the gypsies begin to mock and torture him, Esmeralda (Jessica Gruver) intervenes. As the story progresses, Quasimodo, Frollo, and the new captain of the cathedral guard, Phoebus (Edward Brennan), all become fascinated with her in different ways: Quasimodo feels a childlike devotion to her for her kindness, Frollo a lust he tries (but fails) to channel into evangelical zeal, and Phoebus a love that inspires him to stand for the defenseless in the face of injustice. Yet as Frollo becomes more and more consumed with the desire to subjugate everything to his will (e.g., to possess Esmeralda and purge the city of people he considers to be unclean) the situation spirals out of his control. He eventually reaps what he has sown, though as this is not a Disney film, don’t expect him to lose his balance and accidentally fall from a great height.
Tim Case has done a credible job stretching UFO&MT’s thin resources in the set department to conjure up an appropriately Gothic atmosphere. Its overall look gives a good first impression: thick wooden beam work that suggests Gothic arches above the proscenium and a series of platforms and stairs leading up to the cathedral’s bells—all set off by a stone wall with a rose window at its center. Sadly, the window illusion fails when it is front lit (revealing it to be just a printed backdrop), but in the right lighting it is striking.
The scenery never changes substantially. The doors under the bell platform are sometimes removed and other devices, such as slatted wooden dividers, are arranged to indicate other locations (a jail cell, railings, gable trusses, etc.). Though I couldn’t always be sure exactly what they were meant to represent or tell if they were being used consistently, this was a good approach for both practical and conceptual reasons. For one thing, UFO&MT does not have the technical resources to move large set pieces around efficiently, so it came as no surprise that the cathedral had to stay put. However, it’s also a defensible artistic choice to leave Notre Dame looming in the background—a symbol of both sanctuary and persecution, casting its shadow over the proceedings at all times.
Unfortunately, the proceedings themselves aren’t very well formulated or realized. Parnell’s dialogue and some of the new music (like “Top of the World”) frequently veer towards trite and tonal inconsistency with the show’s aspirations to gravitas. Even more unfortunately, the majority of the acting offered nothing to enhance it. I have never seen less chemistry between two actors than between Brennan and Gruver. It was almost as if their performances were being recorded separately in front of a green screen and then merged together in real time. But things didn’t improve even when they were apart. Esmeralda’s rescue of Quasimodo from his gypsy tormentors lacked both urgency and compassion. It made me wonder who Quasimodo was talking about when he later told Frollo she had been kind to him.
I liked the concept of the Greek chorus, especially the singing in Latin. In theory, I can see its potential for narration as well as a device to see into Quasimodo’s mind (since the wisecracking gargoyle friends from the movie are nowhere to be seen). The chorus overflows with good voices, and I applaud how proficient they were at singing as a choir, which is hardly a given for a group of soloists.
Nevertheless, UFO&MT’s shallow acting pool once again reared its ugly head. Giving speaking roles to so many people who were cast for their voices yielded predictable results, dragging down any sequence that featured too many lines from the chorus. The large stone masks they carried were also at odds with the tenor of their surroundings. Though not deliberately cartoonish, their exaggerated size made them come down on the wrong side of the line between comic and grotesque. Even a brief cameo by the beloved W. Lee Daily afforded no respite. As he emerged from the chorus as Saint Aphrodisius, gargantuan stone head in tow, I cringed a little that UFO&MT and the material couldn’t do better by him.
To my dismay, the orchestra, usually one of UFO&MT’s dependable strengths, didn’t bring their A-game. I’m not used to hearing so many flubs from the pit at the Ellen Eccles Theatre. It felt contagious too: each time an actor sang, I wondered if their body mics were spinning a roulette wheel to decide whether or not to turn on. The action on stage didn’t fare any better. In a microcosm, it was as if the nebulous commotion at the gypsies’ Court of Miracles—in which Frollo stabs Phoebus, not that you could be expected to notice—was always just being kept at bay, seeping around the edges. The presence of Espinosa, refreshingly dynamic as the gypsy Clopin, did sometimes manage to provide a point of focus for the milling energy of the crowd, but his role is hardly prominent enough to hold things together in a meaningful way.
Nakatani’s Frollo and Andrew’s Quasimodo provided the the high points — especially in their singing (though Andrew’s voice sounded fatigued). Their renditions of songs such as Frollo’s “Hellfire” and Quasimodo’s “Heaven’s Light” shone through the surrounding disarray. Their scenes together also worked better than anyone else’s. I won’t endorse every line reading, but I believed their relationship for the most part and they delivered what few moments of pathos this ill-conceived spectacle has to offer.
Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre can and does do better work. This year’s The Pirate of Penzance is proof enough of that, yet it’s all the more reason that I cannot give Hunchback a pass. UFO&MT’s top ticket price exceeds that of the Utah Shakespearean Festival and Pioneer Theatre Company. It’s only two dollars cheaper than one at Tuacahn. Utah audiences are used to, and deserve, much better for their money.
It’s a shame, because beneath all its distractions and flaws, The Hunchback of Notre Dame conceals an important message about authoritarianism, sanctimony, and the evils of demonizing those from other places and cultures. But this isn’t a vehicle likely to give those ideas the visibility they deserve. “God help the outcasts,” Esmeralda implores in her signature musical number — a prayer I would like to extend on behalf of this musical. I wouldn’t recommend it to you at UFO&MT, or anywhere else for that matter.