The Hunchback of Notre Dame was originally scheduled last season at the Spreckels Theatre Company. The musical, whose development started in Germany and ended in New Jersey, is an atypical Disney production. More Les Misérables than Little Mermaid, it’s an interesting amalgam of Victor Hugo’s gothic novel and music from the 1996 Disney film.
Spreckels’ decision to replace The Hunchback—a far darker version than one would expect from a production with the Disney name semi-attached—with a more “family-friendly” production of Peter Pan is understandable. It’s also regrettable, because as the production running now in San Francisco and produced by Bay Area Musicals reveals, it’s a very good show.
Hugo’s 15th-century-set tale of the Notre-Dame Cathedral’s bell ringer Quasimodo (Alex Rodriguez), his guardian, the Archdeacon Frollo (Clay David), and a Gypsy girl named Esmeralda (Alysia Beltran) contains enough thematic elements for a half-dozen shows. Religious extremism, class differences, bigotry, sex, lookism, repression and oppression are all explored in Hugo’s story and Peter Parnell’s book, and through Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors) and Stephen Schwartz’s (Wicked) score.
After the lush (and lengthy) “Bells of Notre Dame” provides the backstory, the narrative kicks in. A band of Gypsies has come to Paris, and its newest member, Esmeralda, has caught the eye of both Quasimodo and Archdeacon Frollo. Quasimodo is taken by her kindness while Frollo is taken by “impure thoughts.” Add a dashing French soldier to the mix (Jack O’Reilly), and you have one helluva triangle.
Rodriguez makes for a heart-breaking Quasimodo, and David gives a striking performance as the conflicted Frollo, who utters a few comments about immigrants and borders that might seem prescient. Director Matthew McCoy and his team bring creative solutions to most of this production’s technical challenges. How they present a flood of molten lead poured over a rioting crowd is ingenious.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is no children’s show, talking gargoyles to the contrary. Operatic at times, classic American musical at others, it’s a worthy addition to the season of any company with the talent, facility and budget to do it as well as this production.
Rating (out 5 five): ★★★★