Paris is burning.
A corrupt and creepy cleric, Frollo, has set the city on fire to smoke out Esmeralda, a gypsy dancer and rebel, also the object of Frollo’s fleshly attentions.
The scenes turn chilling during performances of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at Texas State University in part because the titular church recently went up in flames. Although a renovation is promised, we are not over the shocking loss.
Wait, you didn’t know there was a stage version of the 1996 Disney animated musical based on the novel by Victor Hugo? You are not alone. It has been performed by a few American regional theaters and by some companies in Europe, but Disney Theatrical Productions likely felt it was too dark for their family-friendly brand to bring to Broadway and beyond.
Director Kaitlin Hopkins has made “Hunchback” even darker, which increases the dramatic impact and perhaps lends the material yet another chance beyond the Austin area. Given the body and soul counts, the finale feels more like a tragic opera than a musical, which is increasingly acceptable these days, if not perhaps as entertainment for the kiddos.
With explicit permission from the original makers — some of them longtime theatrical colleagues — Hopkins added other alterations. For instance, Quasimodo’s bell tower gargoyles, bells and statues come to life; four of the statues deliver the narration. Humanized statuary is not new, but in “Goodtime Charley” (1975) and “Beauty and the Beast” (1999), for instance, the concept was baked into the original staging, while Hopkins pulls off the harder task of reinterpreting and in many cases clarifying the original through this device.
Except during the long opening exposition, Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s lush songs and Peter Parnell’s light-and-dark play remain lovely. Court Watson’s architectural renderings of the cathedral and the surrounding city are constructive but not overly literal. Cassie Abate’s dances inject an enormous shot of energy into the show, and Stephanie Wells’ musical leadership brings out the best in the singers and instrumentalists.
The reason the show really works, however, is holistic.
Hopkins’ musical theater program can fill a stage with finely burnished talents. There are no weak links. Some deserve extra credit: Operatic veteran and Texas State teacher Ron Ulen provides gravitas, power and menace as Frollo. Technically still students, charismatic, full-voiced Daniel Z. Miller (Quasimodo) and Ana Yi Puig (Esmeralda) could easily be dropped into any Broadway cast, while Chris Clark (Phoebus) and Ian Deane (Clopin) offer flashes of bravado and magnetism.
The show closes today, but the efforts of Hopkins to revitalize half-forgotten shows— I think of her restagings of “The Wild Party” and “The World According to Snoopy” — prove once again San Marcos has become a mecca for musicals.