“Heaven’s Light: Papermill Playhouse’s Hunchback of Notre Dame is Divine”

As your standard Disney-loving theater fan-girl, it is not shocking that my heart nearly blew up into a ball of glitter upon hearing the news that the Disney Theatrical Group would be staging Hunchback of Notre Dame at Papermill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ.

This production is not your average run of the mill (get it? Papermill? No? Ok.) Disney feel good show; even the animated film was pushing its G-rating to the edge with its dark and sexual themes. With music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of the best Disney soundtracks, throwing in Latin chants and period based music. Disney dodged a lot of the nitty-gritty, down and dirty material that was in the 1831 Victor Hugo novel in the film but sought to make up for it in the stage production. Disney’s name is not even attached to the production, in spite of their funding of it. The playbill even reads, “Based on the novel by Victor Hugo with songs from the Disney film” and notes in bold print, “Not recommended for children under 12.” This is a new move for Disney, a new business venture, if you will. Turning its back on the family style musicals that started with the staging of Beauty and the Beast and now turning to its adult audience. Maybe the corporation realize that the children who watched Hunchback in the short years after its release are no longer children and are craving something more substantial to chew on while still being lulled by the familiar tune of their childhoods; just a theory, though.

The show is opened with the familiar “Bells of Notre Dame” sequence fans of the movie are all too well acquainted with. The set and scenery are basic and minimalistic but has a raw beauty about it. In concept, it is quiet medieval, with stone saints and wooden benches and large arches. A monastic choir is present in the background of the show, interjecting Gregorian Latain chants and hymns; it is a nice touch to gently remind the audience that Notre Dame is an ever present figure throughout the story. The audience is presented the back story of how Claude Frollo came to inherit Quasimodo. In the animated film, Judge Claud Frollo (voiced by Tony Jay, RIP) is, for lack of better terms, a sociopath, a basic one dimensioned villain. The show turned back to the Hugo novel for inspiration for a more rounded and believable antagonist. Claude Frollo (played by notorious Broadway baddie, Patrick Page) is an orphan who is raised in Notre Dame along with his younger brother, Jehan (played by Jeremy Stolle). Not unlike the film, Claude Frollo is overly pious and is constantly at ends with Jehan who’d much rather go to the bars with the ladies than study his theology (booze vs. catechism, is there a contest?). After being expelled from Notre Dame, Jehan travels with his gypsy lover while Claude rises quickly through the ranks of the priesthood of Notre Dame to the position of Archdeacon (which in medieval Europe was kind of a big deal). Claude receives notice, after years of not speaking, that Jehan is dying and is now forced to adopt Jehan’s disfigured son. No cold-blooded pious induced murder to be seen here. The way Claude Frollo adopts Quasimodo makes it all the more disturbing than the movie. Instead of seeing Quasimodo as a tool to be later utilized like in the film, Claude views him as a test from God and a way to compensate for the sinful ways of his now deceased brother. It is that moment Frollo vows to teach Quasi, “To think like [him]”- a much more frightening prospect considering Frollo’s self-righteous condemnation towards foreigners and travelers.

Now, cue Michael Arden, the hunchback himself. The staging of his appearance is, in a word, breathtaking. Arden strolls out on stage in basic shirt and pants, completely un-deformed. It is not until he sings, “What makes a monster, and what makes a man?” does he begin his transformation by smearing black paint on his face and tying that infamous hump to his back. Arden’s portrayal of Quasimodo is as close to perfection that any performer can ever dream of reaching. Again, drawing inspiration from the Hugo novel, Arden speaks at a raised, slowed tone, symbolizing Quasimodo’s deafness from years of ringing the huge brass bells. The trio of gargoyles from the film has been eliminated, instead being replaced by representations of various inanimate objects that Quasimodo communicates with and regards as his friends. Arden is able to display a lovely disjuncture between Quasi’s internal voice (the voice he uses when he is, in essence, talking to himself) in which his tone is at a more baseline level against his external voice, which is loud and delayed. The exchange between Frollo and Quasi leading into “In Here/ Out There” is made to be even more heartbreaking than it ever has been because the audience is made too well aware of the fact that Frollo actually truly cares about Quasimodo. Combine this with the powerhouse voices of Page and Arden and you don’t know whether to cry from empathy or because of sheer beauty.

Like the film, Quasi sneaks out to the Feast of Fools where we are introduced to Clopin (played by Erik Liberman). Now here comes the odd part: while Liberman’s talent is boundless, his Clopin falls a bit flat. To be frank, I longed for the trickster attitude I had known from the movie. Liberman’s Clopin was more so practical than devious in the show, constantly reminding Esmerelda (played by Ciara Renee`) of her place in society. Renee`, however, was a sight to be seen. Not only absolutely striking, she is a clear triple threat. It is no wonder Frollo was made slave to his lustful desires. Renee` is able to balance the overt sexuality of Esmerelda with her strong morals to create a vision of a strong, ultra-femme woman. What is a strong femme-fatal without her dashing male counterpart? Possibly better off. I’ve never been a fan of Phoebus (played by Andrew Samonsky), and maybe my prejudices to him are being carried over to the stage. Samonsky is easy on the eyes and ears but Phoebus just comes off as very Gaston-esque with his ability to woo the ladies. The creative team tried to add a layer of possible PTSD by having moments of him describing flashbacks to being on the front lines of the Crusades. Despite this attempt at a more worn Phoebus, it just doesn’t cut it and I’m still left to wonder if Esmerelda was just another poor lady to fall for his charms.

No review of Hunchback would be complete without mention of Disney’s most famous animated sequence “Heaven’s Light/ Hellfire.” As mentioned before, Arden is perfection so of course he delivers “Heaven’s Light” with the beauty and innocence it deserves; it is “Hellfire” that will be looked at most closely. Arguably one of the darkest scenes in Disney history, I believed there was only two ways the creative team could go about staging it: full-on, in your face, down your throat darkness or frightening simplicity. Thankfully, they chose the former. Page is center stage, no special effects; no added scenery just straight voice and it was downright deliciously disturbing. The audience receives a glimpse into the turmoil Frollo is facing as he battles his lustful (albeit human if not taken to an extreme due to his religious fervor) with his dedication to his vows. With a voice like that, it is no wonder Page is regarded as one of Braodway’s baddest baddies. Now no one can ever outdo the great Tony Jay but Page most definitely gives it the old college try.

While the first act, excluding the introductory back story and a few added songs, stays predominantly true to its animated predecessor, the second act delves into the darker aspects of Hunchback’s themes. The new arrangement of “Court of Miracles” leaves something to be desired but that is the only critique act two bears to it (aside from the fact Esmeralda falls in love with Phoebus and not Quasimodo but that’s more of a personal problem). The ending to Hunchback is not the feel-good finale where a nicely packaged moral is delivered forth. Instead, Esmeralda succumbs to the pier, dying in Quasimodo’s arms. The battle of Notre Dame is brilliantly staged, with the various inanimate objects Quasimodo regards as his friends helping him to fend off the cathedral guards by throwing pews over the edge of Notre Dame and eventually dumping hot lead on the soldiers below. Quasimodo’s valliant efforts made Esmeralda’s tragic demise all the more heartbreaking. In an act of rage and revenge, Quasi flings Frollo off the side of Notre Dame- Quasimodo has realized that Frollo has restricted him and instilled a fear of the unknown. As Quasimodo lifts him up, Frollo is lit from beneath with piercing white light, arms extended as if he is nailed to the cross and he is carried offstage. Quasimodo carries Esmeralda’s lifeless body to the spectator’s at the steps of Notre Dame. The doors upstage open to reveal the most beautiful blue scenery, signifying Esmeralda’s assent into heaven. The way is lined by people who have marked their faces with the same black paint Arden used in the beginning of the show, and they guide Esmeralda to her final destination. Arden begins to disrobe, removing his various deformities as the chorus sings “Now here is a riddle to guess if you can, sing the bells of Notre Dame, who is the monster and who is the man?” It is then that Arden directly addresses the audience, saying that many years later, in the catacombs of the cathedral, two skeletons were found entangled together. One of that of a woman who was held in the arms of a man with curvature of the spine; when they tried to pull the skeletons apart, they both crumbled and turned to dust. Not the happy ending Disney fans are accustomed to, but a more heart wrenching and satisfying ending to a dark, haunting show.

If you have time, I highly suggesting searching the full show on YouTube where you can find La Jolla’s performance. While somethings were changed for the Papermill production, it stays relatively similar. I guarantee, you will not be disappointed. The show will absorb you and cause you to question what truly is light and dark and what we regard as beautiful. You will question what we consider monstrous.

-Arianna Sotos