This review was written by Leslie Sattler. All Credit goes to her.
Whenever I purchase tickets to a new musical, I do so with one hope: that the production is either very, very good (translation: entertaining) or very, very bad (translation: even more entertaining). “The Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Dramatic Musical” didn’t quite fulfill that hope, but my experience at Manhattan’s 30th Street Theater on September 17 thoroughly engaged me all the same.
I consider Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel “Notre Dame de Paris” to be a favorite of mine, and so does composer/lyricist/book writer John Taylor Thomas — not to be confused with actor Jonathan Taylor Thomas of “The Lion King” fame. A regular adapter of classic literature (“Jane Eyre,” “Pride and Prejudice”), Thomas heralds the “moving story of the novel” in a BroadwayWorld plot summary, and boasts that his musical adaptation “restores the tragic yet poignant ending of the original narrative” in a way “the present Menken Disney version” does not. Truly, save for the addition of one original character, the slavish faithfulness of Taylor’s “Hunchback” will make Hugo aficionados grin, as it heavily features minor characters (Fleur’s mother, Charmouloue, and Coppenolle, to name a few) included in very few adaptations.
However, I question Taylor’s disregard for the “show, don’t tell” adage. Many of the musical’s most important scenes, such as Quasimodo’s whipping, Frollo’s death, and Quasimodo’s rescue of Esmeralda, are narrated against a totally bare stage by Pierre Gringoire (James Parks), who is the protagonist in the first half of the musical and, bizarrely, the narrator in the second. Additionally, the titular character of Quasimodo (Frank Basile) appears in only four scenes of this 150-minute musical. (For those unfamiliar with the musical theatre world, 150 minutes is pushing “Hamilton” length.) He and Frollo (Fredrick Redd), whose master-servant relationship is fundamental to the story, interact for the first time in the middle of the second act, and then never again.
As a book writer, Taylor’s omissions make this “Hunchback” inaccessible to those unfamiliar with the source material. Newcomers will have no idea what parts of the story are important, and neither, in my opinion, does Taylor.
As a composer, meanwhile, Taylor knows how to make an audience smile, filling “Hunchback” with addictingly hummable diddies from beginning to end. His lyrics are simple and digestible, though his rhymes are predictably uninspired, except when he takes influence from “Sweeney Todd.” (You just can’t begin a baritone aria with the line “These are my friends” after 1979.)
In terms of production value, those expecting anything beyond a pleasant, well-sung work of community theatre will walk away disappointed, unless they focus on a few standout performances. Mikaelah O’Connor (Fleur-de-Lys) is a phenomenally convincing actress with an impressive understanding of Fleur’s motivations; Frank Basile is a heartbreaking and sympathetic Quasimodo who masterfully balances demeanors of violence and tenderness. While Fredrick Redd is very plainly a singer first and an actor second, he is a fine Frollo. His first act’s solo was the highlight of my viewing experience.
Overall, Hugo veterans will get a kick out of Taylor’s “Hunchback” if they enter the theater with a sizable grain of salt. Newbies would do best to save the eighty bucks and start with Disney’s adaptation instead. I commend Taylor for sinking his claws into this beast of a novel — I’ll be first in line to view his second draft.
Leslie Sattler is an editor and culture columnist. She has a degree from NYU. @LeslieASattler