Disney’s new ‘Hunchback’ is a dark, grand spectacle

A scene from the new adaptation of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Photo: Julie Russell

A scene from the new adaptation of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Photo: Julie Russell

OGUNQUIT, ME. – When Disney Theatrical, the live theater arm of the Disney Corp., came into being, it found gold in converting Disney’s successful animated film musicals into live stage productions.

The third property Disney chose to adapt was the 1996 film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” the fifth-highest-grossing movie that year with $325 million.

But when the time came to adapt the movie, the end result was a darker, more Gothic adaptation, written and directed by James Lapine and produced in Berlin, Germany as “Der Glocker von Notre Dame” from 1999 to 2002. It enjoyed local success but never left Germany.

Then Disney made the decision to revisit the piece, and a new adaptation was unveiled at the La Jolla (Calif.) Playhouse in 2014.

The new production included songs from the film, written by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, with songs added for the Lapine production, with a new book by Peter Parnell.

The Ogunquit Playhouse was chosen to be the third regional theater to produce this new adaptation, now on stage through Aug. 6.

It is an ambitious and worthy undertaking, featuring perhaps the darkest material Disney has made into a stage musical.

The new adaptation by Parnell finds the humanity at the core of the sprawling Victor Hugo novel that asks “What makes a monster and what makes a man?” but the adult issues it confronts along the way probably don’t make it something that appeals to the entire family.

Parnell uses some of the characters – most notably Paolo Montalban as the Gypsy leader Clopin Trouillefou – to narrate and introduce scenes and fill in dramatic gaps.

Bradley Dean as Claude Frollo in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Photo: Gary Ng

Bradley Dean as Claude Frollo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Photo: Gary Ng

Like “Hunchback,” other Disney musicals such as “Mary Poppins,” “Newsies” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King,” and “The Little Mermaid” also had ready-made audiences who saw the films with Oscar and/or Grammy Award-winning songs and scores to boost their appeal. What

almost all of them have and “Hunchback” lacks is The Song – That Song – the one when you hear it, you immediately associate it with the movie.

The songwriting team is theatrical royalty, The music is by Menken, who picked up the mantle of the Sherman Brothers and along with the late Howard Ashman and other writers led Disney to a passel of Oscars and Grammys, and the lyrics are by Schwartz (“Wicked,” “Pippin,” “Godspell”), whose work also stands for itself.

And while the score Menken and Schwartz have crafted for “Hunchback”may not be up to the level of other Disney shows, it also is a very worthy effort. As befitting its 15th Century setting in perhaps the world’s most iconic cathedral, it has a strong religious and liturgical bent, especially in the soaring “The Bells of Notre Dame” that opens and closes the show.

“Out There” is Quasimodo’s plaintive plea to be released from the prison that is the cathedral where he has lived ever since Claude Frollo brought him back to the cathedral after the death of his brother Jahan (Mathew Amira).

Another highlight: “God help the Outcasts,” sung by the Gypsy woman Esmeralda (Sydney Morton) as she pauses to consider the plight of her and her people while inside the cathedral.

The voices that speak to Quasimodo – virtually deaf from the din of the bells – come from stone figures who come alive and speak to him, most poignantly and elegantly in the second act “Made of Stone.”

I never thought Bradley Dean looked completely comfortable a few weeks ago as Nicky Arnstein in North Shore Music Theatre’s “Funny Girl,” but after moving north he has captured the tortured soul of Claude Frollo, whose piety become despair when it runs headlong into his lust for Esmeralda and the resulting choices he makes. He is completely up to both the acting and vocal demands of the role.

F. Michael Haynie is performing the role of the deformed 20-year-old bellringer Quasimodo without extensive makeup and using only a prosthetic hump, the way most actors choose to portray John Merrick in “The Elephant Man.”

Relying on facial expressions and halting speech to become the so-called “monster,” the role is a tough road to hoe, including holding or replicating facial expressions and delivering the dialogue in the same off-putting manner throughout , but he succeeds admirably.

Sydney Morton certainly fits the bill as the beautful, sensuous Esmeralda with a cool, clear singing voice, and the call to central casting for a dashing leading man type to play the war-weary Captain Phoebus de Martin (Christopher Johnstone) was also successful.

A 32-member chorus situated upstage on a bridge ups the musical ante even more but in a smaller theater where the sound quality has never been a issue it becomes almost too intense; it would perhaps work better in a larger house.

Musical Director Brent-Alan Huffman has his hands full here as a musical ringmaster, but does an excellent job marshaling both the vocal and orchestral forces and melding the disparate elements.

Still, it can be a bit overwhelming at times, taking the story with it.

Director Shaun Kerrison and the designers have done a fine job adapting the show to the Ogunquit stage with Adam Koch’s set design allowing the action to flow among the various venues inside the cathedral and on the streets of Paris.

It will be interesting to see where this new adaptation goes from here while it is packing houses at the Ogunquit with 10 shows a week until Aug. 6. Two Disney Theatrical executives were in the audience for a recent performance, and it’s hard to say wherther the House of Mouse has in mind more regional productions or a national tour that would serve as a prelude to a Broadway production.

This adaptation may undergo further tweaks; will Disney lighten it up a bit to make it more palatable for the entire family?

What it is now is a grand, powerful spectacle, with the Ogunquit production providing the same sumptuous production values that have become the hallmark of Disney Theatrical productions.

Yes, it’s a bit darker and more intense than your typical summer fare, but good theater is good theater, no matter what the calendar says.

The Ogunquit Playhouse production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Peter Parnell, based on the Victor Hugo novel with songs from the Disney film. Directed by Shaun Kerrison. Scenic design by Adam Koch Costume design by Martha Bromelmeier. Lighting design by Richard Latta. Sound design by Kevin Heard. Choreography by Connor Gallagher. Musical direction by Brent-Alan Huffman. At the Ogunquit Playhouse through Aug. 6. Ogunquitplayhouse.org.

Christoper Johnstone as Cptain Phoebus in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Photo: Julia Russell

Christopher Johnstone as Captain Phoebus and ensemble in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Photo: Julia Russell