October 25, 2017

The Pennington Players Present “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”; Musical Is Based on Victor Hugo’s Novel, Uses Songs from the Disney Film

“THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME”: Performances are underway for the Pennington Players’ production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Directed by Frank Ferrara, the musical runs through October 29 at the Kelsey Theatre. Quasimodo (C.J. Carter) sings “Out There,” in which he dreams of venturing into the streets of Paris. (Photo by Kyrus Keenan Photography)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

The Pennington Players are presenting The Hunchback of Notre Dame at the Kelsey Theatre. Because the musical contains adult themes and violence, the theater’s website emphasizes that it is “not recommended for children.” For audiences 13 and older, however, this writer enthusiastically recommends the show.

Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz have adapted their score from Disney’s 1996 animated film. The book is by Peter Parnell, based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris; the film’s screenplay; and the libretto by ]ames Lapine for a 1999 Berlin production, Der Glöckner Von Notre Dame. This version of the show premiered at La Jolla Playhouse in 2014, and was presented at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 2015.

Audiences in the Princeton area should be grateful that Disney Theatricals licensed the show for performance, instead of transferring the Paper Mill production to Broadway. Skillfully directed by Frank Ferrara, the Pennington Players have presented a production that has the polish that one would expect in a Broadway theater.

The Hugo novel was a somewhat unorthodox subject for a Disney animated feature. Although it was not unprecedented for the studio to venture into serious territory, the Disney brand still carried audience expectations as to content. Changes were made to make the story more family-friendly. Three silly gargoyles were added for comic relief, and the ending was rewritten to make it uplifting. To avoid religious controversy, the villainous Frollo became a judge rather than the archdeacon of the cathedral, and a kindly, unnamed archdeacon was added.

The stage adaptation is more faithful to the novel. The gargoyles have been cut, though Quasimodo, whose speech is now slurred, has imaginary conversation with statues in the cathedral. Frollo is once again the archdeacon.

Clopin, the narrator, explains that Frollo and his brother Jehan were sheltered at Notre Dame as orphans. Jehan was expelled for bringing Florika, a Gypsy woman, into his room. Meanwhile, Frollo rose through the ranks of the priesthood. Florika died of the pox; Jehan, dying of the same disease, begged Frollo to care for their baby. Frollo initially planned to kill the deformed baby but took him in, deciding that he was a test from God.

Twenty years later, Frollo complains to Quasimodo about having to attend the Feast of Fools, an annual street festival. Quasimodo offers to accompany him for his protection, but Frollo warns him that he will be despised for his deformities. After Frollo leaves, Quasimodo imagines the statues encouraging him to attend the festival. As he dreams of leaving the cathedral, Quasimodo sings “Out There.”

Written for the film, “Out There” is a fine example of an “I want” song, in which protagonists sing about their wishes. As Schwartz’s lyrics describe Quasimodo’s isolation “safe behind these windows and these parapets of stone,” Menken’s melody is deliberately range-bound. When Quasimodo dreams of venturing “out there, strolling by the Seine,” the music becomes more adventurous, employing larger melodic intervals.

As Quasimodo, C.J. Carter delivers an outstanding performance of “Out There,” capturing the character’s curiosity and thirst for connection with a community. His restlessness is underlined by the choreography and blocking, as he paces back and forth across the stage. He exuberantly swings from a ladder, in one of a few overt visual references to the film.

Phoebus, the captain of the guard, arrives at the festival and flirts with the women. Frollo admonishes him that there is no time for “Rest and Recreation,” as they must work to rid Paris of lowlife. Esmeralda and the other Gypsies dance to the “Rhythm of the Tambourine.” Quasimodo, who has sneaked out to attend, is crowned the King of Fools. He is humiliated until Esmeralda intervenes. Frollo orders the ensuing riot to be stopped, and extracts a promise from Quasimodo that he will never leave the bell tower again.

Later Esmeralda follows Quasimodo into Notre Dame, and prays that God will help the less fortunate. Frollo tells her that Quasimodo is his responsibility, and offers to give her religious instruction. Esmeralda refuses him, noticing the lustful way he looks at her. “Your soul is so unclean you can’t imagine goodness in others,” he snarls.

To Esmeralda, Alicia Rose Dishon brings the mixture of compassion and worldliness  required by her role. She brings an earthy sensuality to her dance in “Rhythm of the Tambourine,” and infuses “God Help the Outcasts” with a subtle undercurrent of defiant anger and frustration. Vocally, she caresses musical phrases with a pleasing vibrato.

Quasimodo rhapsodizes about Esmeralda’s kindness, dreaming of a romantic relationship with her. Frollo becomes aware of his own lust for her, praying that Saint Mary will save him from “Hellfire.”

Frollo asks King Louis XI for authority to protect the citizens of Paris from a Gypsy witch. His request granted, he orders Phoebus to burn down a brothel known for hiding Gypsies. When Phoebus refuses, Frollo orders his arrest. Esmeralda intervenes; in the ensuing commotion Frollo stabs Phoebus and frames Esmeralda for it. Esmeralda and Phoebus escape.

Gregory Newton, a commanding baritone, gives a layered performance that permits Frollo to be a more complex character than he is in the film. Compared to his relentlessly sinister counterpart in the film, the stage Frollo is more dangerous, because his cruelty has a veneer of goodness. Newton’s performance of “Hellfire” makes clear that Frollo is surprised by his spiritual self-conflict.

Scott Johnson also has a rich baritone voice, but his Phoebus provides the required contrast to Frollo. His exuberant performance of “Rest and Recreation” is an early highlight.

Esmeralda gives Quasimodo a map to the Court of Miracles, a Gypsy hideout, and begs him to hide the injured Phoebus. After she leaves, Frollo confers with a guard and blithely tells Quasimodo that Esmeralda can now be captured; Quasimodo and Phoebus flee to warn her.

Clopin and the other Gypsies prepare to relocate. Phoebus asks Esmeralda to go with him; Quasimodo is heartbroken when they embrace and admit their love for each other. Frollo arrives and orders that Phoebus and the Gypsies be arrested; he thanks Quasimodo for leading him to the hideout.

To Clopin, Andrew Timmes brings a smooth tenor. By turns impish and reflective, he infuses his narration with an excited intensity.

The choir is excellent, as is a performance by soprano soloist Rachel Benoit. The ensemble infuses choreographer Rachel Tovar’s sensual dances, particularly for the Feast of Fools sequence, with raucous energy.

The set, designed and built by Bryan Schendlinger, and painted by Emily Russilino, establishes a solemn mood. Scene changes are avoided; in effect, we never leave the cathedral. Props, such as the altar and a curtain, are placed center stage to indicate changes of setting. Vicki Kaiser’s lighting provides the illusion of stained glass windows, and enhances the sense of danger in other scenes.

Costume designer Sally Sohor effectively evokes the period and mood of the show. Quasimodo’s green tunic recalls the animated film; a comparatively subdued color palette is employed for the other costumes. An exception is Esmeralda’s bright, sinuous outfit. Frollo is given two robes: a white robe for his false piety, and a glittering red one he wears when his actions are driven by his lust for Esmeralda.

Of course, in musical theater there is a substantial catalogue of shows in which the protagonists’ physical appearance causes them to be outcasts, and complicates their romantic hopes. The Phantom of the Opera is an obvious example. Menken composed the music for the Disney animated movie Beauty and the Beast, as well as the subsequent stage musical and live-action film. It was Schwartz’s idea to adapt Wicked for the stage, and he wrote the music and lyrics for that show.

However, there is room for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Themes of piety, psychological manipulation, and bigotry are examined in a compelling way. Parnell has found a balance between using narration to hurry through stretches of plot, and giving the audience time to savor moments that are crucial to the characters. His book is a deft synthesis of Hugo’s novel and the Disney film.

Menken’s score is one of his finest. Stirring, harmonically sophisticated choral numbers establish the cathedral setting. The intensity of the choral writing is leavened by melodic ballads, and by energetic, rhythmically inventive production numbers.

As a lyricist, Schwartz is deft at conveying stretches of plot that might take too long if they were established through dialogue. Quasimodo’s numbers, especially “Out There,” and “Made of Stone,” display Schwartz’s gift at accentuating character development.

“We wish we could leave you a moral, like a trinket you hold in your palm,” members of the ensemble sing at the end. With this first-class production of a musical by writers at the top of their craft, The Hunchback of Notre Dame leaves audiences much more.

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” will play at the Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County Community College, 1200 Old Trenton Road in West Windsor, through October 29. For ticket and show time information call (609) 737-7529.