What makes a monster, and what makes a man? This was the underlying question of an almost perfect production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, based on the Victor Hugo novel and the songs from the Disney Film, that we saw at the The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) back in October 2016. When we got the season announcement for the “inaugural” season of the newly renamed Star Theatricals (FB) and saw that it contained Hunchback, we were intrigued. Could it equal or come near the spectacular La Mirada production. Last night, we saw the second performance of Hunchback at 5-Star, and I’m pleased to say that it was very very close. There were some touches that I preferred in La Mirada, and one annoying misstep in the printed program, but I recommend the 5-Star production strongly. If you have not seen the new darker theatrical production of Hunchback, this is well worth seeing.
As I wrote back in 2016 (and have since edited slightly):
Coming into the show, the first thing I would say is: drop your expectations. This is not exactly the Victor Hugo novel. It is definitely not the Disney film, although it retains the songs by Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken. It retains some notions of the Disney adaptation, although all cutesy humor has been dropped, along with the happy ending (it roughly retains the ending of the original). It is not the 1999 German musical version with a book by James Lapine — there are significant changes in the story there. It is based on the 2014 production at the La Jolla playhouse and the 2015 Paper Mill Playhouse version of the show (with a revised book by Peter Parnell) but even then there are some changes from that version. The seeds of this particular production were sown at the Sacramento Music Circus earlier in August 2016, and I believe the Sacramento version is the version that is now licensed by MTI.
Given the complexity of the story, I’m going to refer you to the Wikipedia entry on the Paper Mill Production for the detailed synopsis. The story focuses on the Frollo brothers, Claude and Jehan, and their legacy. Given salvation in the Cathedral of Notre Dame as infants, they are raised in the church. Jehen rebels and marries a Gypsy woman; Claude continues in the church and rises to Archdeacon, ever resenting the Gypsys for stealing his brother from him. On his deathbed, Jehan summons Claude and presents him with Jehan’s son, a deformed infant. Claude raises the boy, whom he has named Quasimodo, in the church, keeping him away from everyone in the bell tower. Quasimodo’s only friends are the stone gargoyles, who come to life and speak to him in his imagination. Once a year, the Gypsies are allowed to dance in the street; Quasimodo goes out that day and is crowned King of the Gypsies, and then taunted for his looks. The palace guards stop the taunting, and a gypsy woman, Esmeralda, comforts Quasimodo. She visits the church to see him, where Claude develops a lustful attraction for her. So does the captain of the guards. You can see the tragedy set in motion from that point, so I’ll leave it there. Suffice it to say that this doesn’t end well for everyone in the end (do Hugo’s novels ever do?).
Back when I saw the La Mirada production — in the period just before the election of Donald Trump — I wrote of the character Dom Claude Frollo “The character itself brought to me echos of Donald Trump in his reactions to immigrants, his anger, and his desire to keep the world safe and simple as he knows it. That echo is not intentional in the story, of course, but does make this story truly relevant to this year when we consider what makes a candidate human or a monster — the question of compassion vs. anger.”. It is now 18 months later, and Donald Trump is now president. There is hatred of the immigrant growing, there is increased judgement of the disabled, and we have leaders that actively work against those who are different. In the welcome to the show in the program, these issues were highlighted: “It is an easy connection to make between the gypsies in this story, and those sections of our contemporary society who are equally marginalized. The character of Quasimodo, with his physical deformations could just as easily be any myriad of persons who are wrongly viewed as unworthy in our society for any number of reasons (physical, mental, moral, among others).”. I’m pleased to see this echo recognized in the program: it is perhaps why this show is seeing an increased number of productions, and perhaps it will lead to better understanding of the plight of the immigrant and understanding of the disabled — perhaps seeing them as people and not monsters to be feared. On the other hand, it may also lead to viewing some of the leaders who have the veneer of acceptance to be seen as the monsters they are underneath. This is the point of this story; it is perhaps why it is so timeless, and why the darkness is so important.
There’s one other additional echo worth comparing since La Mirada: The impact of the #MeToo movement. I’m seeing this more and more in theatre today: aspects of productions that were once accepted without question have new meanings. In this show, there was a scene in the second act where Dom Claude attempts to use his power to sexually coerce Esmeralda. It now makes the audience uncomfortable, increasing the pleasure when Dom Claude gets his comeuppance. Think about this production and the view of women in the story. Think particularly about the implication from Dom Claude where he blames the gypsies and the behaviors for his desires and his misbehavior, when instead it is his lack of self-control. In this production — at this time — that statement screamed out to me in its relevance. Who are the monsters that cannot control their desires and then blame others for their lack of control, and who are the men who control their desires and who work and accept others. It is a telling message.
In the period leading up to the 5-Star production, I read an interview with Will North, Managing Director of 5-Star, about the 5-Star production of Hunchback. North has a strong connection with this show; this connection, I believe, is why he chose the show for the season. In 1996, North was the first actor to portray Quasimodo on the Disney World stage; he returned to the role for this production (and this seems to be a theme this year at 5-Star, for Susan Egan will return to the role of Belle in Beauty and The Beast in their next production, a role she last played in 1994). In any case, in the interview, North said, “I want to take the movie’s lighter tone and bring it to the stage”. I had been curious how he would do this, as the stage version is very dark and intense, and ends differently from the movie. I’m pleased to say that I didn’t detect a significant lightening of the tone, although my wife noted a few staging aspects that may have been lighter (such as the pouring of the molten lead).
It is in Will North (FB)’s casting that the most significant change from the La Mirada production occurred. In La Mirada, two actors portrayed Quasimodo: a deaf actor (John McGinty (FB)) who handled the performance and speaking portions, and a hearing actor (Dino Nicandros (FB)) who handled the singing portions. This, and the incorporation of ASL, made clear that the songs and the belief that Quasimodo didn’t see his disability was completely in his mind. It also permitted La Mirada to show the transformation of the actor to Quasimodo onstage, raising the question of Quasimodo as everyman. 5-Star took a different approach: North handled both the singing and the speaking, and only appeared on-stage made up as Quasimodo. His performance was exceptional, and he had a surprising and strong tenor voice, but the “unification” when compared to La Mirada lost a level of meaning. I think this is something that would only be significant to someone who saw both productions, however. Looking at North’s performance as something new, I still believe audiences will be blown away. The difference, is essentially, between 100% and 95%.
5-Star (I keep wanting to type “Cabrillo”, their former name) continued its tradition of strong leads and strong casting, with a mix of newcomers and AEA veterans. Their leads, in addition to North, were spectacular and just blew me away with their performance and vocal talent.
Cabrillo 5-Star also knows how to use an ensemble well, and they continued that here — both in the gypsy ensemble and the gargoyle/statue ensemble. The main ensemble problem was the printed program: it is being able to identify the strongest ensemble performers that allows them to move up in their careers and get recognition, and it was difficult to do that from this program. More on that later.
Director Misti B. Wills (FB) and choreographer Michelle Elkin (FB) did a remarkable job of shaping the ensemble, the performances, and the movement. There were some elements on stage — particularly the use of real less-controlled fire — that you don’t see that often. They also brought out the appropriate intensity in the leads, and utilized the stage space well both in the dance and in the overall movement and coverage.
‘ve already noted the strength of Will North (FB) as Quasimodo. It was a surprising performance, especially considering that North has moved behind a desk, and is less on the stage as an actor and singer. He had a strong and emotive voice and handled his numbers well. He worked well in his interactions with those around him, and — most importantly — was believable and not a caricature. Quite a remarkable performance.
As Esmeralda, Cassandra Marie Murphy (FB) was simply spectacular. Her “God Bless the Outcasts” will blow you away with the beauty of her voice. She captured the sexiness of the character without being over, and truly portrayed her as a strong independent woman. She was a joy to watch.
Gregory North (FB), who we have seen before as a strong Capt. Hook at Cabrillo/5-Star, was an equally strong Dom Claude. North has to bring strength and power to this role, which he does in both performance and voice. His “Hellfire” is extremely strong.
Adam Hollick (FB), who was Joseph in Cabrillo/5-Stars recent production of Technicolor Dreamcoat, gave another strong performance here as Captain Phoebus De Martin. We admired his singing and his look then, and he didn’t disappoint this time. ollick has a great singing voice and a good stage presence, and handled his character well.
The last “lead” character — at least as the publicity photos go — was Justin Michael Wilcox (FB) as the “King of the Gypsies”, Clopin Trouillefou. We’ve seen Wilcox in numerous past shows, and he always gives a great performance. In this show, he has the added burden of most of the narration and exposition — a task he handles well. Strong singing and strong dancing make him fun to watch.
The remaining actors have smaller named roles as well as performing in the ensemble. It is here that the printed program first breaks down (there are more): it doesn’t distinguish the ensemble members that are part of the gypsy ensemble, and those that are Quasimodo’s stone friends and statues. This is bad, as there are some remarkable performances and looks in those clearly identified roles, and it is difficult to match the performers to the role. This is particularly true for the statues: there was one female statue with a breastplate that had a strong voice (later identified as Miyuki Miyagi (FB), who we liked in Allegiance) and my eye kept being drawn to the mouse or rat or gargoyle on stage left (at least I think it was left — it may have been Elizabeth Adabale), but identifying the performer was hard. I did admire the performer playing Saint Aphrodisius (L. Michael Wells (FB)) for his look; I had a similar admiration for the “Madame” character for her look and characterization. I also admired Emma Carlborg’s work with the live fire and dance. In general, I found myself watching the ensemble members closely during the larger numbers just for their expressions, happiness on stage, and performance quality. The following folks comprised the ensemble/smaller named roles: Katie Hume (FB) [Florika, Ensemble]; William Carmichael (FB) [Father Dupin, Ensemble]; James Beardsley (FB) [Frederic Charlus, Ensemble]; Trevor Shor (FB★, FB) [Jehan Frollow, Ensemble, Phoebusu/s]; Tom Hall (FB) [King Louis XI, Ensemble]; Sarah Marie (FB) [Madame, Ensemble]; L. Michael Wells (FB) [Saint Aphrodisius, Ensemble]; Daniel Berlin (FB) [Official, Ensemble]; Zy’heem Downey (FB) [Ensemble]; Elizabeth Adabale (FB★, FB) [Ensemble]; Andrew Garcia (FB) [Ensemble]; Emma Carlborg (FB★, FB) [Ensemble]; Evin Johnson (FB) [Ensemble]; Veronica Gutierrez (FB) [Ensemble]; Mitchell Johnson (FB) [Ensemble, Clopinu/s]; Miyuki Miyagi (FB) [Ensemble]; Alastair James Murden (FB★, FB) [Ensemble]; Kat Monzon (FB) [Ensemble, Esmeraldau/s]; Rodrigo Varandas (FB★, FB) [Ensemble]; Naomi Murden (FB) [Ensemble]; Jimmy Saiz (FB) [Ensemble, Quasimodou/s]; Elizabeth (Lizzy) Jorden Sheck (FB) [Ensemble]; Marie Spieldenner (FB) [Ensemble]; Tyler Marie Watkins (FB) [Ensemble]; and Terri K. Woodall (FB) [Ensemble, Dance Captain].
As with La Mirada, there was an on-stage chorus (almost liturgical) that provided additional voices and sound, as appropriate for a French church setting. Laura Dickinson (FB), who was the narrator for Joseph, served as Chorus Master. Alas, here is where the second failure of the program comes into play: The members of the chorus are not credited anywhere that I could find. All I can say is that they were in good voice.
Music was provided by the 5-Star Theatricals Orchestra, under the musical direction of Dan Redfeld (FB★, FB). The orchestra consisted of: Gary Rautenberg (FB) Flute, Piccolo, Clarinet, Soprano Sax; Kimaree Gilad (FB) Oboe, English-Horn, Alto Sax, Clarinet; Darrin Smith (FB) Bassoon, Bass Clarinet, Baritone Sax; Jennifer Bliman (FB) Horn; Bill Barrett (FB) Trumpet I, Piccolo, Trumpet; Chris Maurer (FB) Trumpet II, Flugelhorn; Mike McCully (FB) Tenor Trombone, Bass Trombone, Euphonium; Colleen Coomber (FB) Violin I; Sally Berman (FB) Violin II; Karen Goulding-Long (FB) Viola; Bang Eunn Lee (FB) Cello; Benjamin Ginsberg (FB) Keyboard Synthesizer I; Ryan Whyman (FB) Keyboard Synthesizer II; Shane Harry (FB) Double String Bass; and Tyler Smith (FB) Set Drums, Percussion. Darryl Tanikawa (FB) was the Orchestra Contractor. The orchestra was produced by Tanikawa Artists Management LLC.
Finally, turning to the production side. The program contains absolutely no credit for scenic design. No scenic designer, no rental credit for the scenery. Nothing. Nada. There is the possibility that they rented the scenic design from McCoy Rigby Entertainment (FB) and the La Mirada production — there are some similarities. As I wrote then: “The scenic design by Stephen Gifford (FB) was…. towering. The stage consisted of a two level structure. The lower level served a number of purposes, both low (town square, church floor) and high (bell tower). The upper level housed the choir on each side, and provided an upper portion to the bell tower and an observation point for various characters. There were large bells that were lowered, and a grate that was likely wooden…” — this seems to fit 5-Star’s usage. So this is the third problematic program omission: scenic designs deserve credit, both for the designer and any subsequent rental.
Returning to the production side: the non-scenic design props were designed by Alex Choate (FB) and worked well — especially the use of fire effects presumably coordinated by Emma Carlborg (FB★, FB). Costumes were by Beth Glasner (FB), with hair and wig design by Daniel Robles (FB) and Trina White (FB) did the makeup. In general, the costumes, hair, wig and makeup worked well. I was particularly taken with St. Aphrodisius’s costume and the illusion of him holding his head. A few of the gargoyle costumes needed some undergarment correction to be a tad less — shall we say bulgy in wrong places. The gypsy costumes worked well, and I appreciated the tattoos that appear to have been added. Overall, I felt the illusions created by the costumes worked well; I can’t speak to how Quasimodo’s costumes and makeup looked up close, as we were in the Mezzanine. The sound design by Jonathan Burke(FB) generally worked well; there could have been more effects for the lowering of the grates and such. Jose Santiago (FB)’s lighting design established mood and time well. Remaining technical credits: Jack Allaway, Technical Director; Talia Krispel (FB), Production Stage Manager; Richard Storrs (FB), Marketing Director; Mustang Marketing (FB), Marketing Team; David Elzer/Demand PR, Press Representative; and Will North (FB), Managing Director.
There is one more weekend to see Hunchback of Notre Dame at
Cabrillo 5 Star Theatricals (FB). Tickets are available through the 5-Star Box Office; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. It is a well-done production that is well worth seeing; be aware that it is darker than the Disney animated movie.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Continuing into May and June: The first weekend in May will bring School of Rock at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), with the following weekend bringing Soft Power at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The middle of May brings Violet at Actors Co-op (FB). The last weekend will hopefully bring a Nefesh Mountain concert at Temple Ramat Zion; the weekend itself is currently open.
June — ah, June. That, my friends, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), including The Story of My Life from Chromolume Theatre (FB). Additionally in June we’re seeing the postponed Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), The Color Purple at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), and possibly Do Re Mi at MTW. The latter, however, is on a Sunday night in Long Beach, and so Fringing may win out.
July will get busier again. It starts with the 50th Anniversary of Gindling Hilltop Camp, followed by On Your Feet at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The next weekend brings Jane Eyre The Musical at Chromolume Theatre (FB). The third weekend in July brings a Bat Mitzvah in Victorville, with Beauty and The Beast at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) that evening. The last weekend may be a Muse/ique (FB) show. August starts with Waitress at the Hollywood Pantages (FB).
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.