Paper Mill’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” transports us to 15th-century Paris, with the kind of solid and stately set -- a moody cathedral bell tower -- we’d expect from deep-pocketed benefactor Disney Theatricals.
But there’s much about “Hunchback,” inspired by the Victor Hugo novel and based on the animated musical, that isn’t very Disney-ish. The hero is deformed, and won’t be turning into a prince anytime soon. He falls in love with an outcast gypsy. And both are stymied by a religious figure whose climactic ultimatum to the woman is “love me, or I’ll kill you.”
“Newsies,” this isn’t.
“Hunchback” is a love story about sexual obsession, and the much-anticipated joint production from the New Jersey regional theater and California’s La Jolla Playhouse -- it continues through April 5 -- truly embraces its darkness. Ultimately, there’s a little too-much narrative “tell,” and not quite enough “show” to consistently hold attention for two-and-a-half hours.
The promise of a score by the power-duo of Alan Menken (“The Little Mermaid”) and Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked” and “Pippin”) is enough to spur most musical theater fans into this belfry. Their music is rich and complex, but Menken and Schwartz are missing support: Peter Parnell’s book is scattershot, and the direction by Scott Schwartz, the lyricist’s son, is lacking confidence when it’s needed most, at the musical’s climax.
A rousing opening number, “The Bells of Notre Dame,” provides necessary backstory, explaining how Frollo (Patrick Page, returning to the villainous form of “Spider-Man”) came to reluctantly care for his nephew, Quasimodo (Michael Arden, in a terrific performance). As “Hunchback” unfolds (songs from the movie remain; new ones have been added), we meet gypsy Esmeralda (Ciara Renee), and one more suitor, a soldier (Andrew Samonsky) who has just returned from war.
The talented actors are the best things about “Hunchback.” Arden, the leading man recently lauded for directing “Spring Awakening” with L.A.’s Deaf West Theatre, dons his makeup onstage, transforming into the hunchback before our eyes, much as Bradley Cooper did in “The Elephant Man.” Songs-of-desire, such as the heart-tugging, “Out There,” seem custom-built for Arden’s well-tuned pipes.
Page makes for an imposing Frollo, with an equally stunning voice suited to the chilling “Hellfire,” which has him confronting his own feelings for Esmeralda. We never discover enough about Esmeralda to develop a strong attachment, though Renee, who was featured as the witch in Broadway’s “Big Fish” and recently co-starred in “Pippin,” is a beautiful singer.
Supporting actors play a variety of characters, including the gargoyles who’ve kept Quasimodo occupied during his lonely life. Some 32 talented choir members from New Jersey’s Continuo Arts Symphonic Chorus serve as the onstage ensemble.
A second-act curtain-raiser featuring a performance by a beheaded statue holds promise, but the overwrought finale, which has Quasimodo rushing in to rescue Esmeralda, was anticlimactic—a fabric curtain doubling for molten lead is a theatrical device that seems jarring on the heels of so much naturalism. I thought Alexander Dodge’s set, with bells descending from the fly loft above stage and dark rafters suggesting the sanctified tower of the Parisian landmark, was just fantastic.
The production here is licensed for regional runs, only. Could a Broadway run eventually happen? Anything’s possible, but there are some kinks to work out, first.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” through April 5 at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, N.J. Tickets: $28-$99. Visit PaperMill.org, or call 973-376-4343.