Menken-Schwartz’s ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ is finest JPAS work ever

By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out”)

There is a bittersweet irony with the musical score of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” animated film. It is the first and only coupling of two of the greatest Jewish Broadway composers of recent times in Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. Yet, the music and lyrics are largely evocative of the Catholic Church. 

Quasimodo (Enrico Cannella), left center, and Captain Phoebus (John Michael Haas), right center are captured in Act II of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” (Photo by John Barrois)

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is considered the last and the darkest of the Disney Renaissance animated film series. That series, which began with “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” in 1998, includes wildly successful projects by Alan Menken and his celebrated lyricist partner Howard Ashman (“The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin”). 

Following the untimely death of Ashman, Menken turned to Tim Rice to complete “Aladdin.” Rice had already joined with Elton John in the release of  “The Lion King.” Schwartz had enjoyed positive results himself with the 1995 release of “Pocahontas” and in less than a decade would be better known as the composer and lyricist of Wicked.  Disney executives paired Menken with Schwartz, who was noted on Broadway as the composer of  Pippin and Godspell. 

However, based on the Victor Hugo novel, the film and its impressive score did not resolve into a happy ending and the dark nature of its story failed to gain a popular foothold with the public.

New Orleanians will recall that two days before the film’s general release its world premiere was first heralded by a street parade in the Vieux Carré replete with Disney characters and then shown on six massive screens inside the Louisiana Superdome in 1996.

Esmeralda (Micah Desonier) befriends Quasimodo (Enrico Cannella). (Photo by John Barrois)

Following the film’s release, James Lapine wrote a book for a musical adaptation for the Menken-Schwartz work that opened in Berlin in 1999 and played for an astonishing three years there, establishing itself as one of the most successful German runs of its time. Three years ago, in the hopes of establishing a new Disney production on Broadway, the Paper Mill Playhouse mounted an entirely new production with a new book by Peter Parnell. However, it eventually closed when producers announced they had not achieved the critical mass needed to make it to the Great White Way.

Shortly after this, Disney began to market the production to stage companies across the country. Taking a sizable gamble, the Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS) under the direction of artistic director and maestro Dennis Assaf opted to produce the work at its new home, the Jefferson Performing Arts Center on Airline Drive.

Knowing that the production had failed to capture the confidence of its producers, this risk could have been a monumental disaster for the upstart company whose previous greatest successes were two nearly identical mountings of The Light in the Piazza in back-to-back years along with the well-attended productions of My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Funny Girl and Mary Poppins.

The JPAS production of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” (Photo by john Barrois)

Indeed, JPAS decided to go big or go home. The first thing Assaf decided to do was to get a director skilled in presenting musical theatre. He did not have to go further than seeking out Michael McKelvey, the talented artistic director at Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane and the director of Le Petit’s late fall presentation of The Last Five Years and Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts recent run of sold-out shows of Million Dollar Quartet. McKelvey brings a level of sophistication and understanding to this production that puts this show in the rarefied air of among the best to ever be seen on any local stage.

It clearly is the finest production ever staged by JPAS, which is not in any way a denigration of their past work, but, moreover, an indication of how thoroughly refined and superb this specific show is.

The Jefferson Chorale, a 34-member chorus directed by Louise LaBruyére, is suspended on stage throughout the performance. Musical director Donna Clavijo provides Assaf with rock-solid arrangments and he conducts a live orchestra of 20 or more players. The ensemble cast numbers 22 actors, some of whom have established operatic careers and theatrical experience. The seven leading and featured actors include Enrico Cannella as Quasimodo and Dennis Jesse as Archdeacon Claude Frollo, both legitimate opera and light opera stars.

Enrico Cannella as Quasimodo. (Photo by John Barrois)

Menken and Schwartz use the chorus and the music of the opening scene, “The Bells of Notre Dame” as a device to advance the plot during both acts. Menken gives each of the leading figures his or her own leitmotif that identifies them throughout the work.

Cannella and Jesse handle much of the main tension of the work in which the deformed Quasimodo is challenged to do what is right, but also to do his uncle’s bidding for the sake of the Church, which he governs as the archdeacon. Jesse’s dark depiction of the archdeacon is a study of a holy man at war with himself. Frollo is forever haunted by the path his brother took in which he married beneath his station. He believes the malformed Quasimodo is a divine judgment from above that such unions are not proper. He strives to stay pure and hold fast to the teachings of the Church, but he is tempted by his lustful feelings for the gypsy girl Esmeralda (Micah Desonier).

In order to eliminate his own feelings and guilt, the archdeacon decides Esmeralda must be executed as she is a reminder of his own fall from grace.

Desonier has several meaningful scenes with Cannella too. As Quasimodo, Cannella owns the emotional arc of the work, a study of a man who is beautiful in his heart, but deemed ugly in body and visage. Menken’s music, Schwartz’s lyrics and McKelvey’s direction make his journey central to the plot.

Desonier also stars opposite John Michael Haas as  Captain of the Guard Phoebus de Martin in a sub-0lot of star-crossed love. Both equity actors perform exceedingly well together and with great chemistry. Haas’ tenor has a beautiful and lush timber and Desnonier’s rich and soaring soprano is a magnificent counterpart to it.

Captain Phoebus (Jean Michael Haas), far right. (Photo by John Barrois.

The massive set meant to resemble the cathedral in Paris in which much of the action takes place is rented from the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine with costumes leased through the Music Theatre Wichita company. Rest assured, when Quasimodo pulls the rope to send the bells pealing above the cathedral, it is nothing short of spellbinding.

There are a few costuming choices for the “gargoyles,” for example to whom Quasimodo carries on conversations, that fall flat. But in the long run, there are so many other perfect choices that those few fails hardly seem worthy of mention.

Lighting design by Jean-Yves Tessier is nothing short of sublime. The dark recesses of the cathedral are accented appropriately to give maximum effect to the players on the stage. Choreography by Jaune Buisson is exceptional and the sound design by Theo Fogleman is also magnificent, filling the house along with the chorus and principal voices.

There is so much of this work that is seen on a grand scale that it oftentimes takes on the look and feel of an opera. While many of the devices employed by Menken and Schwartz are used in the staging of operas, songs like “God Help the Outcasts,” “Top of the World” and the haunting “Someday” formerly used as an end title in the film, all give emotional depth to the performances.

Archdeacon Claude Frollo (Dennis Jesse) in a scene from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” (Photo by John Barrois)

The chorus work is textured, especially in the second act opening of “Agnus Dei.” Frollo’s “Hellfire” and Esmeralda’s self-titled song are among the most moving in the work. Quasimodo’s “Out There” and “Made of Stone” are two songs that establish much of his character’s search to find himself in a hostile world. Even the quirky “Tospy Turvy” is used to great effect to establish the capricious nature of the gypsies and their rebellion to the moral fodder of the Church.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame in two acts with a 15-minute intermission runs approximately two hours and 25 minutes. It continues at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center, 6400 Airline Drive in Metairie, Louisiana. Showtimes on Friday and Saturday, March 2 and 3 are at 7:30 p.m., while the final Sunday matinee on March 4 is at 2:00 p.m. For ticket information, call 504-885-2000 or click here.

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