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Monday, October 16, 2017

F3Stage Review: Long Beach Landmark Theatre Company rings Disney's Hunchback's bells

Film Flam Flummox

While Disney Theatricals pulled the plug on any further official, in-house productions of their current stage adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel and their 1996 animated feature The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the States, let alone Broadway, two years ago, earlier this year they launched an official national touring company... in Germany. It's a fitting, if no less disappointing, case of musical theater history repeating itself, for Disney's (in)famously first adapted the film--and its glorious score by the Oscar-winning team of composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz--for the stage in 1999 in a James Lapine-scripted and -directed production that enjoyed a successful three-year run in Berlin yet never has been officially produced in America.

The key difference between now and 1999, however, is that while the notion of Disney mounting another American production themselves is currently a dead issue, the current Peter Parnell-scripted version (used for Disney's popularly acclaimed 2014 La Jolla, California and 2015 Millburn, New Jersey limited engagements directed by Scott Schwartz) is available for license, and so Menken and Schwartz's score lives on in the hands and voices of smaller regional theater companies. After the piece made a rather disappointing but still adequately effective Los Angeles premiere last fall at the La Mirada Center for the Performing Arts that mostly aped Scott Schwartz's staging but deviated from it to its ultimate detriment, Hunchback returns to SoCal in a more unique production staged by the upstart Long Beach Landmark Theatre Company that opened on Saturday, October 14 and runs through the next two weekends, October 21-22 and 28-29.

Granted, a large part of the Landmark production's uniqueness is one of fortuitous circumstance: the home base/performance venue for this new secular theater company is the First Congregational Church of Long Beach, a historical landmark completed in 1914. Needless to say the actual vintage church setting, complete with massive rose window, lends a priceless dimension of physical immersion, not to mention such a structure was literally built to amplify sounds such as Menken's choir-carried score to ample resonance. Working with a piece that is set in large part in and around the Notre Dame cathedral, one would initially be tempted to say that director Megan O'Toole and scenic designer Mark Wheeler's job is thus that much easier. However, a space that is designed for worship and not full-blown theatrical productions comes with it its own unique challenges: namely, a venue at once short on space in the traditional front "stage" area and incredibly expansive just about everywhere else. Wheeler's design indeed leans toward the minimalist side; the only huge set piece is a large wooden staircase stage left. That said, it is completely effective both in representing the Notre Dame belltower (there are no actual bells in this production, just two ropes signifying them) and being of unobtrusive, practical use for the production, for it is the bridge between the second level pews that are used for the titular character Quasimodo's (Owen Lovejoy) personal rooftop sanctuary with his imaginarily animate gargoyle friends (Matt Balin, Doug Emslie, Corey Shaw) and the more multipurpose mainstage area--in which O'Toole rather impressively makes the most of constrained space. The two big production numbers--"Topsy Turvy"/"Rhythm of the Tambourine," which serves as gypsy dancer Esmeralda (Michelle Chaho)'s grand entrance; the seductive "Tavern Song (Thai Mol Piyas)," in which Esmeralda and soldier Phoebus's (Jeff Lowe) blossoms as cathedral archdeacon Dom Claude Frollo's (Jay Dysart) lustful obsession for her grows--don't feel compromised at all, thanks to O'Toole's resourceful choreography and the skills of performers.

And given what the ultimately intimate, character-driven piece Hunchback has always been, any production ultimately rises and falls based on those performers, who not only must do justice to the complex themes rooting back to Hugo's source material but that spectacular Menken score, and the Landmark cast does the job well. Interestingly enough, Lovejoy and Chaho physically recall the animated feature's voice actors (Tom Hulce and Demi Moore, respectively), but they inject their own unique warmth and personality both together and apart; vocally, they excel in their respective stage version-exclusive numbers, Esmeralda's aforementioned "Rhythm of the Tambourine" and Quasi's 11th-hour, showstopping lament, "Made of Stone." Lowe makes Phoebus's arc from self-involved arrogance to selfless compassion convincing, and he strikes sparks with Chaho, who make the often easily overlooked love duet between Phoebus and Esmeralda, "In a Place of Miracles," an unexpected highlight of the whole production. Andrew Metzger injects real live-wire mischieviousness to Clopin, king of the gypsies, and his energy seems to feed into the rest of the cast and crew on "Topsy Turvy."

But the number everyone waits for--and, in all honesty, especially in a production staged in an actual, historic church--is Frollo's searing paean to his faith's losing battle against his base desires of the flesh, "Hellfire," and not only does Dysart make it worth the wait, so does O'Toole's chilling staging, climaxing with ensemble members lowly lowering a cross toward Frollo's head in a wash of blood red light. Moments such as these, where the themes (and are they ever more relevant than ever, in this era of blind fear and of the proverbial "other," and sexual harassment and assault by figures of authority), music, performance, staging, and (yes) setting converge to thrilling effect are why Menken and Schwartz's Hunchback is such a vital work to keep alive on stage, and why the Landmark production is a worthy entry in the piece's ongoing theatrical legacy.

Long Beach Landmark Theatre Company's production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame runs through the next two weekends, October 21-22 and October 28-29, at the First Congregational Church in Long Beach. Tickets are now available at Long Beach Landmark Theatre Company's official website.

(photo by Michael Dequina)

(photo by Michael Dequina)

Buy The Hunchback of Notre Dame American Premiere Cast album CD here.
Buy the Der Glöckner von Notre Dame 1999 German Cast album CD here.

(Special thanks to Long Beach Landmark Theatre Company)

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