Some Disney movies make great stage musicals (see: Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King). Some Disney movies make not-so-great stage musicals (see: Tarzan, The Little Mermaid). Some Disney movies are better as stage musicals (see: Newsies).
And then there's The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Based on Victor Hugo's 1831 novel (and, in turn, the 1996 Disney movie musical), Hunchback follows Quasimodo (Michael Arden), a deformed young man who's emotionally abused by his uncle Frollo (Patrick Page), the devout archdeacon of Notre Dame. Quasimodo longs to escape the bell tower where he's lived and worked his entire life, and sneaks down onto the streets of Paris, where he meets the gypsy Esmerelda (Ciara Renée). He falls in love with her, but there's one small problem — both Frollo and Phoebus (Andrew Samonsky) are also in love with her, and Frollo isn't as pious as he pretends to be.
If some of these plot elements sound familiar, it's because they are. Every element of director Scott Schwartz's production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, now having its first U.S. professional production at La Jolla Playhouse, seems like it's been borrowed from some other show. Frollo is a doppelgänger for the erroneously self-righteous Javert from Hugo's Les Miserables, minus the obsession with bread theft. The French setting and quasi-love story between Quasimodo and Esmerelda are reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast, while the score (with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz) borrows chord progressions and themes from Menken's Hercules, The Little Mermaid, Little Shop of Horrors and Aladdin, and Schwartz's Wicked. Peter Parnell's self-reflexive book seems heavily inspired by Disney Theatrical's recent play version of Peter and the Starcatcher (which premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2009). The overall effect is that of a pastiche, sampling other musicals but offering little new material of its own.
There are a few saving graces in Hunchback, though. Visually, the show is stunning, and every image created by Howell Binkley's lights and against Alexander Dodge's sets is so picturesque it seems to have come directly from the stained glass windows of the famed Parisian cathedral. Under music director Brent-Alan Huffman, the cast and the choir sound pristine. The addition of a professional choir, Sacra/Profana, is a nice touch, lending credence to the religious setting, but its presence is confused by Menken's score, which sounds torn between being a Disney pop score and Les Miserables 2.0.
The performances are all adequate, but err on the side of being bland, with one exception. Ciara Renée shines as Esmerelda, in spite of limited dramatic material she's given to work with. You can't help but feel Renée chomping at the bit, looking for a morsel of character development to sink her teeth into. She's searching in vain, though — these characters are as static as the sculptures of saints that adorn the cathedral.
In spite of its focus on physical abnormalities, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a very pretty show. It sounds nice, and it's pleasing to look at, but that's about it. It doesn't offer anything new to the contemporary theatrical landscape, instead relying on borrowing bits and pieces from other, more successful musicals. But those musicals were successful because they were original, not because they followed some kind of magical formula to make a hit.
La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Dr., La Jolla; through Dec. 14. (858) 550-1010, lajollaplayhouse.org.
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