CD Review: THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (Studio Cast Recording)

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by Tony Frankel on May 25, 2016

in CD-DVD

WHAT HUMP?

While Disney has encroached Broadway with film-to-musical adaptations, not one has come out which bettered its source. While the stage version at the La Jolla and Paper Mill Playhouses both improves and makes less of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), the Studio Cast Recording of the Paper Mill cast is quite a knockout. It is now available on CD and download from Ghostlight Records.

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This is the second stage version of Hunchback; the first, in 1999, played in Berlin under the direction of James Lapine (recorded as Der Glöckner von Notre Dame). Under the direction of Scott Schwartz, this rendition contains songs from the movie alongside some new ones by original songsmiths Alan Menken (music) and Stephen Schwartz (lyrics).

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The new book by playwright Peter Parnell strengthens the original by hewing closer to the source material of Victor Hugo’s novel: He wisely chose a much darker tone, eliminating those ridiculous vaudevillian gargoyles, and made the evil Frollo corrupt through conflict not magic, making him a much more sympathetic villain. Unfortunately, Parnell chose to have the ensemble act as both Greek Chorus (the statues and gargoyles) and storytellers (congregants) who directly address the audience with stage action. As such, it ended up on stage a laudably ambitious but jumbled production; it’s way too mature for kids and not consequential enough to attract discerning adults. Now that this version has been produced, it’s unlikely that it will be fixed more as it bypassed Broadway to begin playing at regional theaters and schools around the country (it opens at So Cal’s La Mirada Theatre in September, 2016).

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That said, I highly recommend the sumptuously produced CD. Menken truly beefed up his newer lush, soaring score with gorgeous orchestrations by Michael Starobin, a 25-piece orchestra (conducted by Brent-Alan Huffman), a 32-member choir, and some of Broadway’s top talent who thankfully circumnavigate that 80s’ Les Miz pop sound. I can’t say that any of the new songs will find themselves in cabarets or Billboard charts, but they remain most compelling, especially the Broadway-style ballads and the hefty, booming Gregorian religiosity.

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The story now revolves around the gypsy Esmerelda (Ciara Renée, the only actor circumnavigating that ) and the three men who become obsessed with her: the partially deaf, socially outcast Quasimodo (Michael Arden), who blossoms due to her kindness; the somewhat 2-dimensional but swarthy soldier Captain Phoebus de Martin (Andrew Samonsky); and, most vitally, Quasimodo’s uncle, Dom Claude Frollo (an outstanding resonant Patrick Page), the archdeacon who took Quasimodo in after the death of his beloved wastrel brother Jehan (Jeremy Stolle). Dom Claude develops a fixated lust for Esmerelda, which leads to tragic results more in line with the novel.

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A helpful booklet with lyrics and two essays by Disney Theatricals head Thomas Schumacher and Menken, leave no doubt as to the goings on; we also understand why Michael Arden’s vocals, from back-and-forth portrayal of Quasimodo from speech impediment to perfectly clear singing, can be explained. Indeed, the recording works much better than watching the show, simply because we can concentrate on the splendor of the score and not the jumbled storytelling. It’s like looking at Young Frankenstein‘s Igor and saying, “What hump?”

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photos by Nathan Johnson

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Disney Theatricals on Ghostlight Records
original release date January 22, 2016
1 disc | 80 minutes
to order, visit Ghostlight

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