Of all the Disney animated musicals since their revival in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, my favorite has always been 1996’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I believe 1991’s Beauty and the Beast is a true classic and very deserving of being the first animated film ever nominated for Best Picture of the Year. But it was still based on a fairy tale and contained a lot of too cute Disney-fied elements. Hunchback was a much darker and more serious film (even with the trio of comic gargoyles) based on a classic of literature. When it came to adapting the animated film to the stage, playwright Peter Parnell went back to the source and the result is a very dark albeit quite lyrical and uplifting musical.
McCoy Rigby Entertainment is presenting the L.A. area premiere at the La Mirada Theatre and it is a stunning piece of theatre, sure to be one of the year’s best. Parnell gives us a lot of back story on the show’s villain, Dom Claude Frollo (the dominating Mark Jacoby), Bishop of Notre Dame Cathedral, giving reasons for his deep religious faith and his fanatical hatred and persecution of gypsies. Parnell has also taken the comic elements out of the gargoyle characters, making them voices in Quasimodo’s head, voices that encourage him.
Jacoby makes Frollo a full-bodied character, showing us his strengths and weaknesses, his humanity. Cassie Simone dazzles as the gypsy dancer Esmeralda whose smoldering sensuality incites the lust in both the virtuous and celibate Frollo and the young stud Captain of the Guard Phoebus (the always interesting Eric Kunze) as well as the love and devotion of the deformed bellringer Quasimodo (John McGinty). How could he not fall in love with Esmeralda; she is the first person to ever show kindness to him. Quasimodo was brought up by Frollo and kept hidden away in the cathedral’s bell tower, told he was ugly and the world was cruel.
Frollo’s lust for Esmeralda and hatred of her people drive the story to its dramatic and tragic conclusion. Director Glenn Casale’s assured hand keeps the pace moving swiftly but every character moment gets highlighted as well as every musical number. I saw the American Premiere of the musical at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2014 and liked it but had problems with some of the casting and direction. This latest production is so much richer and the reason is the genius and heart in Casale’s inspired direction. He has cast a deaf actor (McGinty) in the role of Quasimodo and given him a clarion singing voice thanks to the work of Dino Nicandros. These two actors work seamlessly in creating a truly memorable and heart-breaking character. The signing of the character and others in the cast adds a lusher feel to the piece.
The tech is all of the highest quality—Stephen Gifford’s imposing bells along with cathedral windows and arches, Marcy Froehlich’s colorful costumes, Jared A. Sayeg’s masterful lighting design, dark when needed, bursting with color when called for, Josh Bessom’s sterling sound design (not a word or a note missed). Dennis Castellano’s music direction makes this score, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, soar heavenward. The best songs are still those from the film, the others fill out the plot. The 30-plus on stage choir, under the management of Sean Gabel, gives the score a big, lush choral sound that is just thrilling to the ear. Dana Solimando has added some fun and lively choreography for the gypsies. May the bells toll forever for The Hunchback of Notre Dame but you have a limited time to see it for yourself.
La Mirada Theatre, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. In La Mirada. Ends Oct. 9 532-944-9801 or 714-994-6310 or www.lamiradatheatre.com.