Review: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in San Francisco

The Hunchback of Notre Dame was originally scheduled last season at the Spreckels Theatre Company. The musical, whose development started in Germany and ended in New Jersey (having never made it to Broadway), is an atypical Disney production. More Les Misérables than Little Mermaid, it’s an interesting amalgam of Victor Hugo’s gothic novel and music from the 1996 Disney film. Far darker than one would expect from a production with the Disney named semi-attached, Spreckels’ decision to replace it with a more ‘family-friendly’ production of Peter Pan is understandable. It’s also regrettable, because as the production running now in San Francisco produced by Bay Area Musicals reveals, it’s a very good show.

Alex Rodriguez as Quasimodo

Hugo’s 15th century-set tale of the Cathedral of Notre Dame’s bell ringer Quasimodo (Alex Rodriguez), his guardian Archdeacon Frollo (Clay David), and a gypsy girl named Esmeralda (Alysia Beltran) contains enough thematic elements for a half-dozen shows. Religious extremism, class differences, bigotry, sex, lookism, repression and oppression are all explored in Hugo’s story and Peter Parnell’s book and through Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors) and Stephen Schwartz’s (Wicked) score.

After the lush (and lengthy) musical number “The Bells of Notre Dame” provides the backstory, the narrative kicks in. A band of gypsies has come to Paris and its newest member Esmeralda has caught the eye of both Quasimodo and Archdeacon Frollo. Quasimodo is taken by her kindness while Frollo is taken by ‘impure thoughts’. Add a dashing French soldier to the mix (Jack O’Reilly) and you have one helluva triangle.

Music director Jon Gallo and an excellent nine-piece orchestra deliver the lush score, which runs from the light (“Topsy Turvy”) to the darkness of “Hellfire”. The choral numbers are particularly effective with the ensemble’s rich voices filling the cavernous theater.

Alex Rodriguez makes for a heart-breaking Quasimodo and Clay David gives a striking performance as the conflicted Frollo, who utters a few comments about immigrants and borders that might seem prescient. Both actors are in excellent voice in their characters’ musical moments. 

Director Matthew McCoy and his team bring creative solutions to most of this production’s technical challenges. Lighting issues were noticeable at the opening night performance but should be resolved quickly. How they present a flood of molten lead poured over a rioting crowd is ingenious.  

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is no children’s show, talking gargoyles to the contrary. Operatic at times, classic American musical at others, it’s a worthy addition to the season of any company with the talent, facility and budget to do it as well as this production.

 Rating (out 5 five): ★★★★

‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ runs Thursday–Sunday through August 5 at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street in San Francisco. Show times vary. $35–$80. 415.340.2207.

Photos by Ben Krantz

An edited version of this review appeared in the North Bay Bohemian.

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