Disney movies have always sugarcoated the dark fairy tales that they adapted their animated films from. In the real stories, Sleeping Beauty is raped and has kids while in her coma; the Little Mermaid is dumped for a princess from another city and is turned into sea foam; and Cinderella’s stepsisters get their eyes pecked out by birds. As Bay Area Musicals’ “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” shows, there is equally as much more depth and darkness to the story than what is shown in the 1996 Disney film. Although it uses Alan Menken’s score, the theatrical version adapts its story more from the Victor Hugo novel than the animated film. Debuting in 2014 at La Jolla Playhouse, the musical transferred to the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey before closing, never making its way to a coveted Broadway theater.
The musical tells the story of Quasimodo, a deformed man kept from the outside world by his guardian Archdeacon Claude Frollo. When the kindhearted Roma woman Esmeralda befriends Quasimodo, he begins to realize there is more out there than his secluded home in Notre Dame’s bell tower. Esmeralda also captures the attention of self-righteous Frollo, who struggles to reject his impure thoughts and seeks to weed out Esmeralda’s corruption at all costs.
Bringing such an epic tale to the relatively small stage of the Victoria Theatre could easily have been an obstacle for the production, but artistic director and choreographer Matthew McCoy uses it as an advantage to create an intimacy with the audience. The orchestra is hidden in plain sight behind the sets’ open columns while the ensemble players often sit onstage and watch the story unfold before entering the diegesis themselves.
The players wear many hats, sometimes literally, as they play villagers, Roma people, soldiers, chorus members, narrators and various tertiary characters. While at times it is hard to keep track of which role a player is playing, for the most part the versatility of the players brings a sense of welcome familiarity to the production and highlights the dexterity of its actors.
Despite its title, the musical seemed to explore the complexities of antagonist Frollo more than anyone else, especially as many of the other characters are defined by their relationships to the Archdeacon — the first character the audience is introduced to. His introduction is through “The Bells of Notre Dame,” which provides exposition to Frollo’s rigid morality and inherent disgust toward the Roma. Arguably one of the most nefarious Disney villains, Frollo’s malevolence is driven by his fervent, misguided piety.
Actor Clay David masterfully brings Frollo’s convoluted character to the theater, commanding it with a subtle intimidation that lingers even when he is not onstage. In his standout performance, David brings all of the conflict and pain of the character to each action and lyric. The seasoned actor’s talent is best showcased in “Hellfire,” in which the audience witnesses both the terrifying anger and the vulnerability of Frollo while he sings about his lust for Esmeralda.
Esmeralda herself is brought to life by Alysia Noelle Beltran, whose soulful “God Help The Outcasts” underscores the character’s purity and altruism that attracted Quasimodo, Frollo and Captain Phoebus (Jack O’Reilly). Likewise, Quasimodo’s belted solos are beautifully sung by Alex Rodriguez. Although Quasimodo’s elderly speaking voice detracts from his scenes, Rodriguez brings heart to the impassioned “Out There” and innocence to “Heaven’s Light.”
With the strength of its performances, the multicultural cast celebrates diversity and brings social commentary to the forefront of the musical. Although the story is already a criticism of the Roman Catholic Church, McCoy invites the audience to consider how the idea of sanctuary to those displaced is as relevant today as it was in the 1800s. Combined with the intimacy of the venue, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” invites the audience to consider what makes a monster and what makes a man in modern times.