Dallas — Friday night, an amazingly fine cast of singers, and a tight, solid production provided an auspicious opening night as the Lyric Stage organization moved from its longtime home in Irving to the historic downtown Majestic Theatre.
The only thing missing, unfortunately, was a musical worthy of the company and the setting. On that count, Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a property derived from the 1996 Disney animated movie musical based on Victor Hugo’s iconic novel from 1831, falls short.
For those too young to remember, there was a time when a Disney animated musical was not an automatic candidate for transfer to the Broadway stage. Walt Disney invented a new art form—the feature-length animated cartoon—with the production of Snow White in 1939. It wasn’t until 1994, when Disney’s Beauty and the Beast successfully transferred to Broadway, that the Disney movie-to-live-musical pattern began to emerge.
The animated version of Hunchback of Notre Dame scored moderate success as an animated musical movie, with the original violent, tragic ending replaced, Disney-style, with a happy conclusion for an audience of children and a G rating. Following the pattern already set up by Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, the Disney company produced a live stage version, with revamped score using the songs from the movie and additional materials, and with the ending and some of the material heightened with a return to a tragic ending similar to that of the novel. This version premiered in Berlin in 1999 to some success; further revision resulted in a version that premiered in California in 2014 which was not deemed suitable for Broadway, and the show was released for production by regional companies.
Two large problems loom in this final live version. While the song list contains several memorable numbers (including “Out There” and “God Help the Outcasts”) composer Menken and lyricist Schwartz never quite managed to find the convincing humor or irony necessary for a first-rate Broadway-style show. Inspiring and romantic anthems abound, but with little break and variety in a score that too often falls back on verbal and musical formulae. Furthermore, the tweaking of the show’s book, managed by Peter Parnell, from a tale suitable for families to one aimed at more grownup audiences has resulted in a show that never really lands convincingly in either the kid nor the grownup category.
Vocally, however, the cast for this production is one of the finest seen and heard in a locally produced musical in Dallas in this listener’s experience. Catherine Carpenter Cox as Esmeralda, the headstrong gypsy woman at the center of the tale’s love quadrangle, performs with breathtaking passion and a grand, old-fashioned Broadway voice that can belt with beauty; Christopher J. Deaton matches with a traditional Broadway tenor as the swaggeringly handsome Phoebus; and Brandon McInnis as Clopis, the king of the gypsies, is strikingly energetic while also bringing on a smooth, clear tenor voice.
The central conflict, created so compellingly by Hugo almost two centuries ago, comes to life beautifully with Andrew Keeler as Quasimodo and Christopher Sanders as Frollo; this production, directed by Penny Ayn Maas, dispenses with Quasimodo’s deafness and gives him a clear, fluent speaking voice (contrary to the traditional Quasimodo), within which Keeler still manages to convey marginalization, while Maas’s careful manipulation of crowd and space produces the cruelty of the mob. But the finest performance of all, both dramatically and vocally, comes from Sanders, who not only brings a gorgeous bass-baritone to his sung moments but conveys a villain with multi-layered motivation in every gesture.
Randel Wright’s set, a large, symmetrical three-level scaffold, provides a fine, flexible structure for the playing out of the plot, while the costumes by Erica Peterman and Robyn Cheek convincingly and colorfully bring to life a late medieval world on the edge of profound change.
As always with Lyric Stage productions, a full acoustic orchestra in the pit makes the experience of the musical theater all the more enticing in an age when musical productions have retreated to ugly digital sound; Sheilah Vaughn Walker conducts a full pit orchestra obviously made up of top-notch musicians, bringing color and impetus to an often predictable score.
Lyric Stage’s new home in the Majestic Theatre, a grand movie and vaudeville palace built in 1921 and restored as a modern performing arts center in 1976, is an ideal venue for Lyric Stage. The theater resembles, in size and shape, the larger Broadway houses, making it ideal for the authentic musical productions of the Lyric Stage organization, and from where I sat near the front, the acoustic space was ideal for this sort of production. Visually, the early 20th-century neo-baroque splendor calls to mind the golden age of vaudeville; the ghosts of great performers such as Mae West and Bob Hope, both of whom performed there, linger, and one can easily imagine Mama Rose rushing onto the stage or Fanny Brice going toe-to-toe with Flo Ziegfeld in this evocative room. When Lyric Stage returns to real classics of Broadway, as in the production of Loesser’s Guys and Dolls next June, the result could well be thrilling.