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It is quite remarkable how many times the Victor Hugo novel, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” has been dramatized, in film, on television, and on the stage. Originally written in part to encourage Parisians to appreciate the medieval architecture in their midst, the story has captured the imaginations of generations. This thanks to the drama of that architecture, the general fascination with the colorful life of gypsies, the equal fascination with obsessive and exclusionary religious fervor, and that very peculiar character whose gentle, innocent ugliness has become a metaphor all its own.
Finally, a Disney-produced theatrical has taken the songs and a few fantasy characters from the Disney film, and elements of both the novel and the most popular live action movies, and created a dark and relatively interesting hodgepodge of a musical. Now at the Whittier Community Theatre, it has some true star turns, some interesting quirks, and a couple of stumbles, but has moments worth celebrating.
Director Mark Torreso is also the set designer, and that integration works well, for the most part. Unable, due to the layout of the theater, to have a “pit chorus,” – that is, hidden singers who augment chorus numbers – he has created space for an onstage choir of monks, who look down on the dramatic proceedings when necessary and flesh out the richly dramatic, if startlingly unmemorable, music. This sets the tone for the rest of the work, as the cathedral is ever-present physically even when action takes place outside its doors.
In this atmosphere lives this version of the story, which focuses on the conflict between the self-righteously religious Claude Frollo, who has raised Quasimodo to follow him, and the gypsy Esmeralda, whom Frollo both detests for her beliefs and lusts after in spite of himself. Balanced against this is the returning soldier Phoebus de Martin, whose promotion to captain of the cathedral guards puts him squarely in the center of the conflict, along with Quasimodo, who so appreciates Esmeralda’s warmth toward him that her attraction to Phoebus is painful. And so it goes.
Best of this production is Anthony Michael Frias as Quasimodo. His onstage transformation proves impressive, and his ability to portray a disabled character without ever devolving into caricature makes the show possible. Michelle Chaho makes a charming and tuneful Esmeralda, and Jeff Campbell as Phoebus manages both the devil-may-care playboy and the underlying honorable man well. As the leader of the gypsies, Jason Miramontes exhibits a lightness and panache in what is one of his best performances at WCT.
The puppeteers, who speak and sing for Quasimodo’s friendly gargoyles – Scott Charles Felver, Vanessa Evans, Jasmine Vigil and Scott Silson – make those characters come humorously and connectedly alive. Only WCT veteran Richard De Vicariis seems to struggle with the villainous character of Frollo, particularly when called upon to sing. That, the small and distracting projections, and a way, way too amplified orchestra are really the only awkward elements of the piece.
Be aware that the tale of the “Hunchback” is a dark one. This is not a kiddie show, Disney’s involvement in its creation notwithstanding. There is lust and torment and death, and a rather ferocious condemnation of some religious elements, which, though adapted, are more from Hugo than the adapters. The music advances the storyline well, but you will not go away humming it. Come see what this tale can be like when adapted for stage, but do not expect to leave feeling all is right with the world.
What: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. When: through September 22, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, September 16. Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theater, 7630 S. Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $25 general, $20 seniors, students and military with ID Info: (562)696-0600 or www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org