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THEATER REVIEW: “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame”

The set looks like it’s going to spill over into the audience. The playing area is flanked by statues and decorated with gargoyles, with a large rose stained glass window at rear center. Stalls at the back hold the local chorus SACRA/PROFANA, providing splendid musical accompaniment, and the cathedral’s six enormous bells are lowered, raised and rung at appropriate times.

Have you guessed? The set represents the interior of Paris’ famous Notre Dame cathedral – not exactly a small, retiring little monument – and the play is “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame,” playing through Dec. 14 at La Jolla Playhouse.

Though this new stage version of Hugo’s famous classic story (a co-production with Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, New Jersey) is based on the 1996 Disney movie, it is closer to a stage version with book by James Lapine which played for three years in Berlin.

This version sports a new book by Peter Parnell (who adapted “The Cider House Rules” for the stage). Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz have augmented their original score with new, mostly darker songs, and it’s clear from the beginning that this is not the kiddie story you took your kids to see way back when. No cute little dancing gargoyles here, only tortured souls, a group of gypsy outsiders and the title character – the hunchback Quasimodo (Michael Arden).

You remember the story – Frollo (Patrick Page), the archdeacon of Notre Dame cathedral, adopts the orphaned infant Quasimodo (born to Frollo’s wastrel brother and a woman of easy virtue) after the death of the baby’s parents.

Frollo is your typical frowning cleric, always on the lookout for sin or any infraction that might be so described. As Quasimodo (translation: half-formed) grows up, Frollo makes him the Notre Dame bell ringer and restricts him to the cathedral’s bell tower, not out of meanness (he says) but because he thinks he knows how this deformed creature will be treated by a world that little tolerates difference.

When Quasimodo does venture into the street he’s been watching from the tower for so long, he finds the rough treatment Frollo had warned him about – and also the kindness of gypsy Esmeralda (the luminous Ciara Renée).

Set in 1492 in a Paris transitioning between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, this new, darker version hews more closely to the Hugo story in portraying the major characters as complex people who can’t be tagged simply “hero” or “villain.” They are human, perplexed by the times, demonstrating both good and bad behavior.

Directed by Scott Schwartz, this version is large in concept and execution. The impressive set is matched by fine actors with excellent voices. Page anchors the cast as Frollo with a solid interpretation and a rich bass/baritone voice that lends authority to the role.

Renée’s Esmeralda is luminous, with a velvety voice, and a demeanor saucy but kind. It’s no wonder three men are after her including the dour Frollo, who spends much of the second act fighting his desire.

Andrew Samonsky’s Phoebus, captain of the cathedral guard (and a wonderful singer), completes the trio of men bewitched by Esmeralda and is alternately dashing and a little silly.

Eric Liberman’s Clopin, king of the gypsies, has a terrific tenor voice and shines in “Topsy Turvy,” when the gypsies come out to celebrate the Saturnalia-like Feast of Fools.

But the heart of the show is Arden’s Quasimodo, whose loneliness can be felt in the back row and whose voice on songs like “Out There” and “Made of Stone” will break your heart as well.

The one clinker for me is the oddly comic character of St. Aphrodisius (Neal Mayer), who allegedly walked around with his head tucked underneath his arm (the Kingston Trio would later sing about Anne Boleyn doing the same thing). I guess that’s why Aphrodisius sticks his head through the center of the stained glass window here – and does a sort of dance in which his head appears detached – but these shenanigans seem out of sync with the tone of the rest of the show.

There are several echoes of other shows here: when Phoebus and Quasimodo are about to be hanged at the Court of Miracles, they stand at the bottom of a long staircase reminiscent of the one in “Man Of La Mancha.” At the end, Esmeralda walks off toward heaven, reminding me of Marguerite in the opera “Faust.” And local theatergoers will recognize elements of stagecraft used by director Darko Tresnjak when he was in town.

The next stop for the show is New Jersey, where “Hunchback” will play at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Broadway is not in the offing yet, but this show has all the essential elements for a successful run there.

The details

“The Hunchback Of Notre Dame” plays through Dec. 14 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus).

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (858) 550-1010 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.