Given the box office magic the Disney name confers on just about any show produced in the world, it's a surprise and a shock that Walt Disney Theatrical pulled the plug on its live stage adaptation of Disney's 1996 animated musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame after brief runs in San Diego and at Paper Mill Playhouse in North Jersey. The show never made it to Broadway.
But I guess New York's loss is Philly's gain.
Adapted from the Victor Hugo novel and scored with songs written for the movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame musical will have its regional premiere Friday in an ambitious and utterly mesmerizing production by Upper Darby Summer Stage at the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center located on the high school campus of the same name.
It will have a total of six performances over the next two weekends, closing on Aug. 5.
It's all the more impressive, I should add, since Summer Stage, administered by Upper Darby Township, is not a professional company. An arts education initiative founded in 1976 by Harry Dietzler, the program is noted for some of its prestigious alums, including Mean Girls mastermind Tina Fey, Everybody Loves Raymond's Monica Horan, and Barrymore-winning director Terrence J. Nolen.
Dietzler and his committed gang decided to produce Hunchback when Disney began licensing it to regional theaters across the country. This is a surprisingly dark, grown-up adaptation of the movie — while I'm sure tweens will dig it, it's not suitable for very young children. It's also a particularly difficult show to produce. In addition to a cast of more than 30 players — all Summer Stage students — the show also features a choir of 30 men and women on stage and a full orchestra located in an adjoining room.
A preview production Wednesday night made it amply clear that this production means business. The set design was striking: The stage is dominated by a massive re-creation of the façade of Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral. The choir was housed at the very top, behind a large, round stained-glass pane, while balconies, steps, and parapets allowed players to occupy several levels simultaneously.
After a brief choral opening ("Olim"), the cast poured out onto the stage in a rousing rendition of "The Bells of Notre Dame." Several cast members took turns narrating the story of how the cathedral came to be occupied by the stern cleric Dom Claude Frollo (recent Villanova MFA graduate Chris Monaco) and his nephew, the deformed Quasimodo (Villanova alum Patrick J. Walsh), a beautifully kind man-child who has been raised by the priest since birth.
The story takes place in 1482 on the Feast of Fools, a day when the usual rules and hierarchical structures are set aside. As the manic number "Topsy Turvy" explains, it's the day when gypsies, whom the government has outlawed en masse, are allowed to ply their trades openly. And so they do, thieving and dancing, singing and flirting.
So enters gypsy beauty Esmeralda (Temple musical theater major Sierra Wilson), whose sublime sexuality and angelic grace bewitches the two men least likely to treat her kindly, Frollo and the captain of the cathedral's guard, Phoebus De Martin (Tristan Horan, Summer Stage's Nice Work If You Can Get It).
I've never been a fan of the music for the Disney film, but the Summer Stage show's musical director Gina Giachero and choirmaster Eric Longo drew such great performances, my objections were moot.
While the cast was terrific across the board, director Jeff Dietzler (son to Harry) must surely feel blessed to have Monaco, Walsh, and Wilson on board. Their passionate portrayals resonate long after the curtain goes down.
I'm not going to pretend this production would bring the house down on Broadway. That said, Summer Stage manages to reach a level of professionalism and aesthetic excellence that is nothing short of miraculous.