Review: Dark passions drive boldly emotional spectacle of ‘Hunchback’ at Moonlight


After the run of sweltering days we’ve had this month, spending time in the company of songs the likes of “Hellfire” might sound like some kind of entertainment purgatory.

Not to worry, though: While Moonlight Stage Productions’ “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” traffics in heated passions of both the spiritual and earthly varieties, this show also delivers the chills.

“Hunchback,” in fact, is one of the more brooding and emotionally stark musicals you’re likely to see cross Moonlight’s summer stage — and it’s definitely darker in tone than the Disney animated movie that helped spawn the show.

But under the assured direction of Moonlight producing artistic chief Steven Glaudini, it’s a powerful and outsized spectacle, full of forceful performances, visual wows and a musical approach that’s about as expansive as the Cathedral of Notre Dame itself.

While the show’s intensity occasionally tips over into melodrama, this “Hunchback” doesn’t shy from grappling with tough moments and putting up some conflicted, complex characters.

That’s especially true for Claude Frollo, the 15th-century Paris archdeacon played to self-righteous, malevolent perfection by Lance Arthur Smith.

The purehearted Quasimodo (whom the gifted David Burnham portrays with an appealing, boyish innocence) might get title billing, but the story really turns on the once-pious Frollo’s maniacal pursuit of the gypsy Esmeralda (Janaya Mahealani Jones, wonderfully tough and vibrant), and the pain his obsession inflicts on those around him.

Frollo is a case study in the convoluted DNA of this show, which was born in Germany and had its U.S. premiere at La Jolla Playhouse in 2014. While the show’s songs, by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, come mostly from the ’96 Disney movie, Peter Parnell’s story adaptation restores elements of Victor Hugo’s original 1831 novel, including Frollo’s identity as a man of the cloth rather than the law.

That sets up the central tension — and blurring of lines — between the character’s religious and moral fervor and his desire for Esmeralda, which becomes something more like bloodlust, given his irrational hatred for the Gypsies (a people more properly referred to these days as the Romani).

The story also pivots on Frollo’s family relationship to Quasimodo, his adoptive son who is born deformed and becomes the reclusive bell-ringer at the majestic Gothic cathedral.

The mutual attraction between Esmeralda and the ex-soldier Capt. Phoebus (a solid and sly-witted Patrick Cummings) sets up an awkward love quadrangle among those two, Frollo and a smitten Quasimodo. And it sends them hurtling — and not necessarily just in a figurative sense — toward ultimate tragedy.

The saga’s impact gets a major boost from the show’s 22-strong choir, which supplements a company and orchestra that together number nearly 60. Everything about the show is big, including the massive bells that peal in front of Stephen Gifford’s impressive set.

Given the show’s visual splash — including Janet Swenson’s sumptuous costumes and Jean-Yves Tessier’s expert lighting, which plays beautifully with shadow — the use of projections (impressive as they are) can feel superfluous and a little ill-fitting, although they’re used mostly to depict action that otherwise might be hazardous to actors’ health.

Glaudini has drafted actors whose vocal talents both mesh well and define character, from Smith’s throaty, sometimes menacing turns on “Hellfire” and “Sanctuary” to the Broadway veteran Burnham’s more airy, uplifting work on the stirring “Out There” to Jones’ soulful singing (with Cummings) on “Someday” and more.

Richard Bermudez, as the Gypsy king Clopin, likewise stands out on “The Court of Miracles,” one of relatively few numbers that showcase Roger Castellano’s choreography.

Even with all that harmonizing, plus the elegant playing of musical director/conductor Elan McMahan’s 15-member orchestra, Jim Zadai’s sound design manages to tease out each instrument and voice.

Whether or not the show’s heart-on-its-sleeve style rings your bell, there’s plenty here to perk up the eardrums, and excite the eyes.

‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays (gates open at 6:30 p.m.). Through Sept. 1.

Where: Moonlight Amphitheatre, 1250 Vale Terrace Drive, Brengle Terrace Park, Vista

Tickets: $17-$57

Phone: (760) 724-2110


Twitter: @jimhebert