AUGUSTA – There are some peculiar films in Disney’s back-catalog, but one of the most offbeat was the company’s 1996 animated adaptation of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Although it was a box-office hit in its day, “Hunchback” hasn’t been a particularly high-profile title in the past 20-odd years, having been somewhat eclipsed by other Mouse House blockbusters of its era, such as “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King” and “Aladdin.”
But a new stage version — with a heavily rewritten book by Peter Parnell and a substantially augmented score by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz — might bring Quasimodo and company out of the shadows of obscurity. The Barn Theatre opened its 71st season Tuesday with “Hunchback,” one of five fresh titles in the theater’s line-up. Marvelously sung, inventively staged and full of vivid characterizations, it will almost certainly send many audience members home to check out the movie.
The differences will surprise them. The cinematic “Hunchback” is gorgeously animated and exciting, with many effective sequences and first-rate voicework from Tom Hulce as Quasimodo, Demi Moore as Esmeralda, Kevin Kline as Phoebus and Tony Jay as Frollo, yet it walks a tricky line between honoring Hugo’s generally grim and gritty story and trying to qualify as a crowd-pleaser for family audiences.
The theatrical “Hunchback” gives the material considerably more breathing room, allowing Parnell to delve into the story’s rich themes, complex characters and often tragic twists of fate. The movie secured a G rating by compromising and soft-pedaling the more unsavory elements of the novel; the show would probably earn something closer to a PG-13, and that’s a definite plus.
The stage “Hunchback” veers closer to “Les Miserables” or “Phantom of the Opera” in its blend of darkness, spectacle and mystery. The cuddly, comforting touches Disney shoehorned into the movie, such as Esmeralda’s frisky pet, Djali, are mostly scrubbed in this rewrite, allowing the show greater faithfulness to Hugo’s original text (the movie’s finale has been given a major overhaul as well).
The solemn, slightly eerie tone is set immediately by director Hans Friedrichs as lush Latin chants and swirling harmonies fill the legendary Parisian cathedral. Dom Jean Claude Frollo (Robert Newman) is the rigid, intolerant man of the cloth who oversees Notre Dame and warns those who worship there about the evil, even demonic natures of the gypsies and immigrants who pass through Paris.
But Frollo’s severe view of the world is not shared by his nephew, Quasimodo (Jonnie Carpathios), the hunchbacked young man whom Frollo has sequestered in the bell tower and made into the unseen caretaker of Notre Dame. Watching the city streets from his lofty perch, Quasimodo fantasizes about coming out of hiding and joining the crowds.
During the rowdy Feast of Fools celebration, the temptation proves too much, and Quasimodo slips into the mass of partiers, eventually being crowned King of Fools, thanks to the assistance of the bold, vivacious gypsy dancer, Esmeralda (Samantha Rickard). The chance meeting of these two social pariahs sets in motion a turbulent series of events that will reveal the true natures of Quasimodo, Esmeralda and, most startlingly, Frollo.
Tormented by trying to reconcile his fervent dedication to his faith and his uncontrollable desire for Esmeralda, a woman who represents everything he has tried to despise, Frollo is a walking contradiction, and Newman fully illuminates the man’s multiple facets. He demonstrates how smoothly kindness can slip into cruelty and how swiftly the sanctimonious and self-righteous can topple from their seemingly secure pedestals. When he puts his rumbling baritone into “Hellfire,” Frollo’s confession of his all-consuming lust (“She will burn for me, or she will burn”), Newman rattles the rafters and lets us know we are dealing with a genuinely dangerous soul careening scarily between mercy and mercilessness.
In a similar manner, Carpathios offers a Quasimodo who is more than a misunderstood, affection-starved prisoner of fate Disney showcased in the film. As he daydreams about the outside world, he radiates youthful enthusiasm and wonder during “Out There” and the wistful “Heaven’s Light,” yet he’s even more compelling when he expresses Quasimodo’s heartache and disillusionment in “Made of Stone,” one of several new songs created for the stage musical.
Carpathios is also exceptionally fine at showing the physical challenges Quasimodo faces as he lopes awkwardly through the corridors of the cathedral or the shadowy backstreets of the City of Light; beyond being caught in the confines of a love quadrangle, Quasimodo is also trapped in a twisted, ungainly body he has to struggle with, and Carpathios never forgets that.
In sharp contrast, Rickard’s Esmeralda is a whirling, sinuous, spritely spirit, introduced in all her gyrating glory during the rousing “Rhythm of the Tambourine.” Rickard bares a passing resemblance to Demi Moore, but she possesses something the sultry-voiced Moore did not have: a shimmering, beautifully expressive soprano, which makes her major numbers, “God Help the Outcasts” and “Someday,” glow. Barn veteran Jamey Grisham, as Phoebus, the soldier who admires Esmeralda, has the least fully developed central role — in the script, Phoebus initially seems like a vain, shallow he-man like Gaston of “Beauty and the Beast,” pursuing pleasures and bragging of his conquests, before he abruptly becomes idealistic and admirable — yet Grisham successfully overcomes the sketchiness of the character with his natural charisma and rock-solid singing voice.
Not to be overlooked is a delightfully devious Eric Parker as Clopin, the gypsy king whose ragtag clothing hides a razor-sharp mind, as well as some startling magic tricks. The chorus of gargoyles and statues of saints, which primarily served as comic relief in the movie, are re-envisioned here as stolid, wise advisors to Quasimodo; their lighthearted, upbeat would-be showstopper from the film, “A Guy Like You,” is conspicuously absent from the stage version and it’s not much missed.
Scenic designer Samantha Snow has created a versatile, multi-level set that is easily transformed into Quasimodo’s refuge, a rollicking tavern or the gypsies’ underground lair known as the Court of Miracles. Music Director Matt Shabala and his excellent orchestra give the Menken/Schwartz score the punch and force it requires, and the choral work is superb throughout, particularly on the demanding chants, which take on a haunting beauty.
It's an ambitious, audacious kick-off to the Barn’s season, a fine example of taking a chance and making it into something special.
Like most of the mainstage Barn shows, “Hunchback” is followed by a Bar Show in the Rehearsal Shed, and this one is well worth sticking around to see. In between tongue-in-cheek tributes to Disney’s musical legacy, there’s a first-class guest appearance by Newman, outstanding ensemble numbers from the Barn apprentices, a hilarious take on “Sam and Me” from the vibrant Quinn Moran and even a sizzling version of a Cher classic that ties in quite nicely to “Hunchback.”