Friday, November 28, 2014


Hello fellow Hunchbackers! Irvyne here. I'm thrilled to say that I managed to fly halfway across the planet to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame at the La Jolla Playhouse last week! Was it worth it? Absolutely! I'm going to do a spoiler-free write-up of my thoughts. If you have plans to see the production yourself, this is for you. For those of you who live too far away, I'll add some more spoiler-ific info later.

But first a quick summary of the trip. I only had one week in the U.S.A., so I made sure I filled it up as best I could! First was was Los Angeles. I did the usual Hollywood stuff, a bit of sightseeing here and there, and I also managed to see the new Disney film Big Hero 6, which was exciting because it doesn't come out in Australia until the end of the year! (Disney put on a really awesome show at the El Capitan theatre, laser-lights and everything!)
After that I caught the train down to Anaheim and spent a couple of days at Disneyland. It was great to finally get a chance to visit California Adventure. Although this was my third visit to Disneyland, I hadn't seen the second park before. (I also got to give Mickey Mouse a hug for his birthday!)

One really awesome thing they've got at California Adventure is the chance to have a specially-made picture drawn by a real Disney artist! I was stoked at the thought of taking home a memento of the trip. So of course, I got the artist to draw me Quasimodo! I'm going to have this framed in the next couple of weeks. So awesome.

With Disneyland all done, I took the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train south to San Diego. It was there, in the suburb of La Jolla, that The Hunchback of Notre Dame was being performed. I showed my foreign ignorance by pronouncing La Jolla exactly as it's spelled. Turns out it's actually pronounced "La Hoya." Weird Spanish thing. I suppose I was practically on the border of Mexico...

I saw the show twice (when you're travelling halfway around the world to see a show, you might as well see it twice, right?) and I'm really glad I did. Twice a week, the theatre's managing director organises an informal chat in the courtyard out the front. On the first night I visited, he was talking to two of the show's swings, Mary Joe Duggan and Christian Villanueva. (The show has a THIRD swing, Julian Decker, but he was otherwise occupied at the time... more on him later)

M.J. and Christian happily chatted about what the life of a swing is like and what their experience of being in the show was. It seems strange to me that there is only one female swing... I have no idea what they would do if more than one female cast member got horribly sick! M.J. covers EIGHT different tracks in the show, meaning she has to know eight different peoples' dialogue, harmonies, choreography and blocking. Christian covers four of the male parts. (For those not in-the-know, a "swing" is what you call an understudy's understudy. When a cast member fills in for an absent lead role, the swing fills in the understudy's part. So they have to know them all!)

So then, after buying up some merchandise, it was into the auditorium! The set is simple but wonderfully effective. As you can see in the photos and video from previous posts, the designers took elements of Notre Dame cathedral without ever trying to directly copy it. Hence, we have tall wooden platforms and staircases, the big rose window at the back, and the checkered marble floor. (An interesting side-note - I learned that the patterns within the marble floor are actually an exact replica of the tiles in Notre Dame!)

The production is staged in a very low-tech way, which may seem strange for a production by Disney, a company that has always led the way in technology and the "wow" factor. There is no automation in this show, meaning that none of the sets move on-and-off with hydraulics or computer-run technology. The set pieces that come in from the fly-tower are operated by hand, and the various set pieces are brought on and off stage by the cast themselves.

 (Please note this is not my picture. I nicked it from another blog. It's pretty close to where I was sitting though!)
It's kind of hard to explain without actually SEEING it, but the way the show is presented is an old traditional style of theatre, and it demands the audience's imagination and a sharp suspension of disbelief. This can sometimes work wonderfully in theatrical productions, and the audience can feel like a real participant in the story. If done wrong though, it can come across as cheap and pretentious. Thankfully, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is firmly in the former camp. I absolutely LOVE the way it's been staged, and I would go so far as to say it fits the musical better than the incredible automated cube stage from Berlin, which I saw 13 years ago. The new production has cast members narrating directly to the audience. They use simple props to represent much more elaborate set pieces. There are simple sound and colour cues to represent different characters. Nothing is really "whiz-bang" or "wow," the entire show takes place on the single set, but I was still absolutely captivated by the story and I never, NEVER felt short-changed or ripped-off. It may not have the gasp-factor of other Disney productions (including its Berlin forebear) but it's a style of show that comes across as original, clever and entirely fitting to the source material.

Director Scott Schwartz made a very conscious effort to put the focus firmly on the four lead characters. Anything else gets relegated to the background. This becomes especially true in the show's conclusion. Whereas in the film we saw a massive battle with crowds fighting the authorities to protect the cathedral, in this version we see very little of that, and the focus is kept on the leads and whatever THEY are doing at the time.

I'll mention the gargoyles, because I don't really see that as much of a spoiler. Victor, Hugo and Laverne (or - if you like - Charles, Antoine and Loni) are no more. Those characters are gone, and I'm sure there are many people who won't miss them. I actually quite liked their presence in the Berlin production, but I much prefer what's been done in this new version. Quasimodo still talks to the gargoyles. They are still his friends, and he still imagines that they talk back to him. But the gargoyles' voices are played by all of the ensemble members. Whenever they wear a simple grey tabard, they represent the voice of a gargoyle. A lovely little touch is that whenever a gargoyle is speaking to Quasimodo, they ring a little bell. It's an old theatre technique, and it's wonderful. Quasimodo still has his relationship with his gargoyle friends, but they don't have specific personalities, it's just like he's hearing voices coming from all over the bell tower. The only part of this I might want to change is the tabards themselves, which are very plain. I'm not sure what else they could do instead, perhaps wear a mask whenever they're being gargoyles? The tabards look a bit dull and cheap. The concept is fantastic though.

The tone of the show has continued the pattern towards a dark, adult story. In moving more and more towards the original Victor Hugo text, Frollo has been reinstated to his position as the archdeacon of Notre Dame. You might remember in the film and the Berlin production he had been made a judge, which was fine, but I can't tell you how much more powerful the story is with Frollo being the leader of the church. In fact, I'd say the revelation of this new version is the character of Frollo. Brilliantly played by Broadway veteran Patrick Page, Frollo is not just an evil and sinister brute, but we see his flaws, his uncertainties. At times he comes across as completely vulnerable. It is an outstanding performance by Page, and if this production heads to Broadway, I see awards in his future. His beautiful baritone stands alongside Tony Jay with its velveteen tones.

All of the other cast members were likewise fantastic. On the nights I saw the show, leading man Michael Arden was ill, and therefore I saw his understudy Julian Decker, who usually stands in as a male swing. Now, I can't compare the two, because I only saw Julian. But he was absolutely brilliant, and while I'm sure Mr. Arden plays the role wonderfully, Julian Decker WAS Quasimodo, and the audience adored him. One of the fun things about being at the theatre on your own is that you get to eavesdrop on peoples' conversations. I was constantly trying to gauge how people were enjoying it. And I heard many people talking about how amazing Quasimodo was, and that they couldn't believe this was just the understudy! Like in Berlin, Quasimodo talks with a twisted mouth and affected voice when he's speaking with Frollo, Esmeralda or any of the other characters. When he's singing or talking to his gargoyles though, his voice is completely unaffected. It was a nuanced, sympathetic and ultimately powerful performance by Mr. Decker. I was stoked to get my photo with him in the foyer after the second show I saw. I hope he gets to play the lead role many more times in the future.

Esmeralda was played by the young and beautiful Ciara Renée, who brought spunk and spice to the role, while also pulling at the audience's heartstrings when things go horribly wrong for Esmeralda. With Page, Decker and Renée leading the cast, I saw a Triple-A grade performance. The fourth member of the lead cast was Andrew Samonsky as Captain Phoebus. Samonsky also delivered a solid performance as the cocky and arrogant captain who faces an identity crisis when he falls in love with Esmeralda. It has to be said though, that Phoebus simply isn't as interesting a character as the other three, so he doesn't get the opportunity to stand out as much. He does get some good laughs, although Phoebus no longer has a beard, which makes the lines "I just shaved this morning" and "You missed a spot" not make much sense anymore...

 The character of Clopin is an interesting one. In the film and even moreso in the Berlin production he acted as narrator, becoming the audience's eyes into the story. This is no longer the case. Clopin is still in the story as much as he was before, but he no longer narrates... well, no more than anyone else, anyway. As I mentioned before, the narration job has now been spread across the entire cast. In some scenes various ensemble members tell the story as if they are reading it straight from the pages of a book. Since this device became a staple of the show, I suppose it was decided that Clopin simply didn't need to be a storyteller anymore. Hence, his part has been downsized somewhat, but it's still played with gusto by Erik Liberman.

The ensemble (who are called "the congregation") were uniformly excellent in their multiple characters. It's not a large cast (17 including the leads) but they are backed by an amazing 32-piece choir, who remain in their robes at the stage's rear throughout the entire duration of the show. The choir, an existing group called SACRA/PROFANA, brings a whole new level of sophistication and power to Alan Menken's stunning score. Now the main cast can concentrate on their characters, and all of the complex Latin chanting can be taken care of by the choir.

It must be said that the show has had a MAJOR rewrite by Peter Parnell. While there are still elements of the 1996 movie as well as James Lapine's 1999 script, the vast majority of the dialogue is entirely new. This is not like Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King where you're basically watching the film on stage with some added songs. This is a whole new creation, based on the versions that came before it but forging its own daring path.

And daring it is. This is not (repeat: NOT) a show for children. Which probably explains why you won't find Disney's name on any of the marketing. I would not have it any other way though; this is a stage version of the classic novel. Nothing has been toned down or "Disneyfied." And I think audiences really appreciate that. There is a feeling of authenticity in its tone. A simple example is that the mill that Frollo asks Phoebus to burn down is now a brothel... A brothel where the madam recognises Phoebus straight away. There are many other little "adult" touches like that throughout the musical.

After my first viewing of the show, I had a half-hour tour which took me on-stage and behind-the-scenes. (You can book these in advance for $25, but they are limited to 16 people per performance) It was great to see how things worked, and exciting to get the opportunity to walk around on the stage.

After the second show, I hung around in the foyer and had some conversations with the cast. The La Jolla Playhouse doesn't have a "stage door;" the actors simply come down the staircase into the foyer, so they're easy to find. I mostly chatted to Patrick Page, Erik Liberman and Julian Decker, and they were very friendly and seemed genuinely interested in what I thought of the show, being someone that is clearly passionate enough to travel around the world just to see it!

So all up, I think Scott Schwartz and Peter Parnell have done an amazing job in bringing this production to life. It's like nothing Disney has produced before. It feels fresh, it feels bold, and best of all, the characters and the story are completely gripping. The audience didn't even hesitate on both nights I was there; as soon as the curtain call began, they leaped to their feet. They had been genuinely moved; emotionally invested in the story.

Although I know from my conversations with the cast that there are still changes ahead (there will be rewrites before the New Jersey season) I feel that they are definitely on to a good thing here. I wish everybody involved all the very best. I hope this show has a long and successful future, and I hope they bring it to Australia really soon!

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