“THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME,” through March 31, Hale Centre Theatre, 9900 S. Monroe St., Sandy (801-984-9000 or hct.org)**; running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)**
SALT LAKE CITY — The stage musical of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” begins and ends with the same “riddle,” as the show’s lyrics call it: “What makes a monster and what makes a man?”
It’s a poignant and relevant question, and one Hale Centre Theatre attempts to answer with its current production of the show, which will run in the Centre Stage Theatre through March 31. And while HCT has assembled a talented cast and used its resources wisely, it still can't make up for the fact that “Hunchback” is a flawed piece of musical theater.
Based on the 1831 Gothic novel by Victor Hugo, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” tells the story of a deformed bell ringer named Quasimodo who has been isolated, imprisoned and abused by the priest Claude Frollo his whole life. When Quasimodo ventures out into the real world for the first time during the Feast of Fools, he discovers a cruel world but also befriends a gypsy girl named Esmeralda, who has also captured the eye of Frollo. What results is a story of love, lust, kindness, cruelty and humanity.
The story has seen multiple iterations since it was first penned, perhaps most notably Disney’s 1996 animated “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” With music by prolific Disney composer Alan Menken, the adaptation was lighthearted compared to its source material, but many still considered it to be dark by Disney standards and it failed to attract a widespread fan base. However, Disney’s music and characters found their way onto the stage, first in 1999 in Germany, then in 2014 at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse.
The musical delves deeper into Frollo’s backstory and spends a lot of time on his story arc, including his abusive manipulation of Quasimodo and his lust for Esmeralda. The focus on Frollo goes a long way in answering part of the riddle that bookends the show — what makes a monster — but also makes it impossible for audiences to really get to know Quasimodo.
In addition to Frollo and Quasimodo, a great deal of time is also spent on Esmeralda and her love interest, Captain Phoebus.
These four main characters certainly give a glimpse at different perspectives and walks of life, yet the split focus means that although audiences get a good sense of Frollo and what drives him, the character that is naturally easiest to care about — Quasimodo — seems to get the least stage time, especially in the first act.
However, HCT’s talented cast did well with the material they were given, with the highlight performance by James Bounous as Quasimodo (Monday/Wednesday/Friday cast). His powerful tenor voice filled the theater with emotional strains, his performance was heartfelt and genuine and his talent left you wishing you could see more of his character.
Josh Richardson as Claude Frollo (single cast) likewise had undeniable vocal chops as he portrayed a pious, subtle manipulator, switching between demeaning and blaming others to flattering them.
Rebecca Burroughs as Esmeralda (Monday/Wednesday/Friday) was at her best during scenes with Bounous when she was able to display the character’s kindness. Her rendering of the well-known song “God Help the Outcasts,” which was staged masterfully with prayerful “outcasts” flanking the gypsy, rang with emotional intensity and feeling.
The ensemble likewise excelled with the difficult music arrangements that reflected the full, resonant sounds of a Mass choir. While beautiful, the drawn-out style also made some lyrics difficult to understand. This was partially remedied by the use of narrators — Kaitlyn Dahl, Brock Dalgleish and Jacob Theo Squire (Monday/Wednesday/Friday) — who all took on other characters in addition to filling the role of narrator, including acting as the three gargoyles. The three worked well together, but sometimes the material they were handed was too exposition-heavy.
As far as the staging, Kacey Udy’s set design — which included the use of HCT’s state-of-the-art stage to create varying levels, eight large bells for Notre Dame’s tower, stained glass on the LED screens surrounding the theater and basic wood features including four sets of movable stairs, simple altars and blocks — was simple yet effective, and the lighting design was dramatic and deliberate.4 comments on this story
HCT representatives warned beforehand in a previous Deseret News article that the stage adaptation takes greater focus on the dark sides of Hugo’s tale and proves to be more in line with the book. Because of the heavier subject matter — including bullying, the treatment of women, emotional and physical abuse, death, self-esteem, love, lust and manipulation, just to name a few — the story is better suited for the stage, where exploration of such difficult topics is commonplace. And if all of that isn’t enough to convince you that this isn’t your typical Disney show, the musical’s ending will.
It was a valiant attempt of a flawed musical, but the effective staging and talented performers ended up feeling more like lipstick on a pig.
Content advisory: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” includes themes of death, lust and abuse. Although it does contain some implied sexuality and some violence, none of it is gratuitous or particularly graphic.