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Who is the Monster & Who is the Man? Paper Mill Playhouse’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME Review

March 20, 2015 Blog, Review 1 Comment

Logo for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” production. Courtesy of D23.com.

(Heads up! There will be spoilers in this review!)

I will be the first to admit that I was very nervous about this adaption of one of my favorite Disney films of all time, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” I had read in various articles that the Disney Theatrical Group (the musical production branch of the Walt Disney Company) had decided to take a different approach in adapting the film to stage then previous productions featured at the Disney theme parks, which included Disneyland’s “Festival of Fools” and Walt Disney World’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Musical Adventure” (both very different but fantastically staged shows).

This new stage adaptation would take the most memorable aspects of the 1996 film while integrating Victor Hugo’s original story line, making the production have a more nitty-gritty look to it while keeping the same atmosphere of the tale we have all come to know and love.


Quasimodo (Michael Arden) and the ensemble on stage at Paper Mill Playhouse. Photo courtesy of Disney and the Paper Mill Playhouse. (Click photo to enlarge.)

It would not be fair to go into this production with any specific expectations of it being similar to its other stage predecessors and the film, as it was established as its own entity. Soon after walking through Paper Mill Playhouse’s theatre doors and immersing myself into Quasimodo’s World of Notre Dame, stronger appreciation materialized for this tortured soul’s journey, Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s timeless score and learning what makes a monster but, more importantly, what makes a man.

The show is an overall ensemble piece, as each performer acts as a storyteller for their individual character/characters (calling back to Disneyland’s “Festival of Fools” production which used a troupe of actors to tell the classic story). “The Bells of Notre Dame” opening number acts as an exposition song for Claude Frollo’s (played by Patrick Page) back story, as he arrives at Notre Dame with his brother, Jehan Frollo (played by Jeremy Stolle). Both men are excited to further their careers in the church but Jehan strays from his studies, is thrown out of the cathedral and run always with his true love, who is a gypsy. Years later, Frollo is summoned to Jehan’s deathbed, as Jehan pleads to Frollo to take care of his newborn, who is part Romani. Even though Frollo is disgusted with his brother’s past relations and the disfiguration of the baby, he takes the child in for his brother’s sake (naming him Quasimodo, or “Half-formed”) and hides him away in the Notre Dame cathedral.


Claude Frollo (Patrick Page) struggling with his inner demons at the Notre Dame Cathedral.  Photo courtesy of Disney and the Paper Mill Playhouse. (Click photo to enlarge.)

Fast forward 20 years later, we are then introduced to Quasimodo (played by Michael Arden, who transforms into his character right before the crowd, using no prosthetics– only the audience’s imagination) and his “gargoyles”/Quasimodo’s thoughts (portrayed by the entire ensemble, wearing gray, Monk-like cloaks; very clever presentation of these characters), as Quasi expresses his dream to finally leave his lonely bell tower by going “Out There.” He soon meets and falls in love with a Romani woman named Esmeralda (played by Ciara Renée), who Frollo has also developed feelings for that gradually grow into something far more sinister and evil. A demented but divine love triangle begins and stirs plenty of emotion from the audience as it soon releases angels and demons found in reality.

Even though I consider myself to be a Disney HBOND film purist and a big fan of the MGM Studios 40-minute musical at Walt Disney World, I had a difficult time finding anything to dislike about this adaption. Each member of the cast fulfills their role with great enthusiasm while also adding their own take on each character’s journey; Michael Arden morphs effortlessly into an abused and torture soul, Ciara Renée dances with plenty of gusto & attitude while retaining a pure heart as the hopeful Esmeralda, Andrew Samonsky delivers heart to Captain Phoebus, Patrick Page shows Frollo’s constant inner struggle with his devotion to the church & his lust for Esmeralda, and the ensemble work together as a life-form that metamorphoses from gargoyles to townsfolk to Romani.

What I really love about this production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is that it does not shy away from addressing controversial subjects, including racism, oppression and sexual harassment (hence, why the production is not titled *Disney’s* The Hunchback of Notre Dame, even though it is produced by the Company). As a society, we face these odious trials and tribulations each and every day, which is why this story still rings true and hits home for all audience members. From the beginning, Frollo’s racism towards the Romani (or “gypsies,” as he addresses them) is evident in his hatred for Quasimodo’s mother and even Quasimodo, himself, believing they were the reason behind his brother’s “downfall”/happiness. Even though Quasimodo adores and loves Frollo, his feelings of love and kindness are never returned, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when Quasimodo comes to Esmeralda’s defense after Frollo says she is evil, saying, “But, she was kind to *me*…” Esmeralda treats Quasi with friendly affection that he has never known and she comes to his defense as he is physically and mentally abused by Frollo.


The two lovers, Phoebus (Andrew Samonsky) and Esmeralda (Ciara Renée), share a loving moment. Photo courtesy of Disney and the Paper Mill Playhouse. (Click photo to enlarge.)

In one of the most disturbing scenes in the production, we have the final confrontation between Frollo and Esmeralda the night before she sentenced to be burned at the stake for “witch craft” (but the real reason being that she does not return Frollo’s “love”). Frollo offers a final ultimatum to Esmeralda: become his mistress or die. And she chooses the latter, for good reason, proving just another reason why she is one of the greatest Disney leading ladies out there (I would argue in the literary and film world as well); her bravery and courage is something I know we would all aspire to have within ourselves. The audience holds its breath as Frollo grabs Esmeralda and tries to force himself on her while her screams of protest echo through the theater. After she pushes him away, Frollo has Phoebus brought into the cell to rethink his offer in becoming his mistress (for a few moments, I thought Frollo was going to have Phoebus killed right in front of Esmeralda to “send her a message”; it would have been a shocking and emotional death of a character if it was included). I would argue that the following scene is the most emotionally stirring in the entire play, as Esmeralda tells Phoebus she will never understand the cruelty towards others who are seen as different beings because of their race or their appearance. With the song “Someday” (originally featured in the HBOMD film but was cut & replaced by “God Help the Outcasts”), Phoebus and Esmeralda dream of a time in the distance future where equality for all will reign supreme, singing “Change will come; someday, one day… Soon.”

One thing previous Disney theme park stage shows of Hunchback lacked in plot and musical score was Frollo’s twisted but memorable “Hellfire” number, which really delves into the character’s psyche. Not only is the song included in its full glory but New Jersey’s Continuo Arts Symphonic Chorus accompanies Page’s bold performance (with a count of 32 members in the choir), who are also singing throughout the production in pews that have been incorporated to the modest but meaningful set of the rafters in Notre Dame where Quasimodo lives (a similar design to the Walt Disney World stage show set). My only suggestion in amping up the visual attributes of this scene would be to incorporate a fire place or fire-like display that grows and grows until it can no longer be contained, like Frollo’s lust for Esmeralda as portrayed in the infamous movie sequence. While Quasimodo sees Esmeralda as an angel of “Heaven’s Light,” Frollo sees her as a demon from Hell (hence, the title of “Hellfire”) and thus, begins his fall into madness. As strange as it may sound, this song is one of my personal favorites on the HBOND soundtrack, as it is the best villain song ever written for a Disney film; so, as you can imagine, I was in Hunchback Heaven while Page’s Frollo was descending into “Hellfire” damnation (and he nailed it square on the head as he scorched the stage, no pun intended!).

That being said, I feel that Frollo’s character has even more potential to show his darker, demonic side during his final confrontation with Quasimodo after Esmeralda dies; in the film, he attempts to kill Quasimodo out of jealousy and hate but is overpowered by the bell ringer. Rather than have Quasimodo himself throw Frollo from the cathedral (as it is told in the original Victor Hugo story), it should be Frollo’s own actions that cause his undoing, as Quasimodo murdering him takes away from the moral of the story: “What makes a monster and what makes a man?” Even though Frollo is responsible for the death of Esmeralda and the unforgivable pain that Quasimodo has endured all his life, would it be right for Quasimodo to stoop to Frollo’s level and become the monster he has always feared?

During the D23 talk back event with lyricist Stephen Schwartz that took place after the Hunchback performance, Schwartz addressed the development and expansion of Phoebus’ character and how it has been a work-in-progress to build him a wider story arc since early Hunchback workshops. As Phoebus in the musical is a far cry from Victor Hugo’s character in the novel (Phoebus is portrayed as a mean-spirited womanizer in the book and even watches Esmeralda be put to death with no remorse), this production has the opportunity to take some of the dry-humor and nobility of the character of Phoebus in Disney’s film adaption of Hunchback and combine that with the emotionally scarred soldier we meet in Paper Mill’s production to flesh out the character even more. It would have been nice to have had an additional scene featuring just Quasimodo and Esmeralda speaking to and learning more about one another, as Arden and Renée’s chemistry is unstoppable (proven by their lovely duet called “Top of the World,” which is one of the many new editions to the score). Another new character relationship that is touched upon in the musical is with Clopin, the leader of the Romani people, and Esmeralda; they have an affectionate, yet stubborn brother-sisterlike bond that provides great incentive to have its own musical number where the characters have a heart-to-heart (think “No Matter What” from Beauty and the Beast on Broadway but a bit edgier).

While I have read many concerned posts about this latest stage adaptation, HBOND fans have not a thing to worry about. The production is in perfect hands, thanks to the passionate creative team made-up of original lyricist and composer, Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken, respectively, associate director Jeremy Scott Lapp, choreographer Chase Brock and director Scott Schwartz (Stephen Schwartz’s son).

It still has not been officially confirmed (as of this review being published) that Hunchback will be making its way to Broadway in the near future, but it is safe to presume that with a few additions and changes in the production, we will be ringing the bells of Notre Dame along with Quasimodo, Esmeralda and friends for a national tour of the show, or a shot on Broadway. We can only hope that it will be one day, someday soon.


Quasimodo (Michael Arden) and Esmeralda (Ciara Renée) dream of a better life at the “Top of the World.” Photo courtesy of Disney and the Paper Mill Playhouse. (Click photo to enlarge.)

Have you seen The Hunchback of Notre Dame at Paper Mill Playhouse? If so, what did you think of it? Let us know by commenting on this post, Facebooking us, tweeting us or emailing us!

Here are some of my Fun Five Favorites for The Hunchback of Notre Dame at Paper Mill Playhouse-

Favorite Standout Lead Performance: Michael Arden. If this production gets to Broadway (which I really hope it does!), Arden will win a Tony Award, without a doubt.

Favorite Funny Joke: Phoebus- You almost fight as well as a man! Esmeralda- Funny. I was going to say the same thing about you. (Ooo! Burn!)

Favorite Touching Moment: The entire finale. I could not stop sobbing like a baby. Make sure you bring your hankies- I forgot mine at home and I was a mess!

Favorite New Song in the Score: “Someday”- this is sort-of a cheat, as the song was featured in the end credits of the film version, but it deserves to be highlighted.

Favorite Musical Number: A 32-person choir singing “Hellfire” along with Frollo? Yes please!

Final Rating: 5 out of 5 stars. Fingers crossed it will have a long Broadway run!

Get tickets to see THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, playing through April 5th at the Paper Mill Playhouse, here!

Tammy Tuckey is the founder and host of The Tiara Talk Show. Feel free to visit the ABOUT THE HOST page for more info or email her here:tammytuckey@thetiaratalkshow.com. Who wouldn’t love a girl like her?! 😉

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  1. […] You can read Host Tammy Tuckey’s review of the Paper Mill Play production (which does contain spoilers!) here! […]

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