REVIEW: The Hunchback of Notre Dame - Studio Cast

Recording CoverIf you only know The Hunchback of Notre Dame from the 1996 Disney animated film, you're in for a surprise the first time you listen to the newly released Studio Cast Recording of Disney Theatrical's stage adaptation. Taking a more "adult" approach to the material by hewing closer to the Victor Hugo source, composer Alan Menken, lyricist Stephen Schwartz, and librettist Peter Parnell have given us a Hunchback that bleeds, lusts, and ultimately soars.

The recording is anchored by five perfectly-cast leading performers: Michael Arden (Quasimodo), Patrick Page (Frollo), Ciara Renée (Esmerelda), Andrew Samonsky (Phoebus), and Erik Liberman (Clopin). Unlike a certain other Hugo-adaptation, the singers here keep it legit, performing the score with a straightforward style that would not have been out of place in a Wright & Forrest show in the 1950s. This is a good thing: Menken's melodies evoke the best of classic Broadway, supported by Michael Starobin's timeless orchestrations. Arden and Samonsky both give full-throated leading-man performances worthy of John Raitt or Gordon MacRae. Liberman avoids making Clopin into a jester, evoking Donald O'Connor or Danny Kaye. Renée's performance has a touch -- but just a touch -- of pop inflection that serves to remind us of Esmerelda's outsider status. The real star of the recording though, to me, is Page, whose booming bass is so perfectly matched to this material it's shocking to remember it wasn't written specifically for him.

The leads are supported by two distinct chorus, the "congregation" of 14 who serve as a typical Broadway ensemble, and the "choir" of 28 additional voices who give heft to the score's religious music and give voice to the cathedral itself (taking over the purpose, if not the material, of the film's gargoyle characters). Michael Kosarin, credited with musical supervision as well as vocal & incidental music arrangements, deserves high praise for the layers his work adds to the score. Combined with the 27-piece orchestra (conducted by Brent-Alan Huffman), the net result is a feast for the ears.

The new material is so well integrated into the score I found myself consulting with the original soundtrack to determine which pieces were indeed new. While none of the new songs is likely to find much life outside of the score, they are all well-suited to the piece. This is not a score with numbers you'll want to habitually skip.

Despite a surprisingly bland cover (and lamentably few production photos), the CD package (designed by Stephanie Layton) is full of easy to locate information, including all the lyrics, a helpful summary of the show, and two essays: one by Disney Theatricals head Thomas Schumacher, the other by Menken. The production photos are supplemented by attractive recording-studio photos by Nathan Johnson. (If you've ever wondered what Michael Starobin looks like, you're in luck!)

I did not see this production on stage (it played at the La Jolla Playhouse and Paper Mill Playhouse), so I can't speak to why it did not progress to Broadway. But on the strength of this recording alone, I'd like to put in a request with the powers that be at Disney Theatricals to consider a symphonic concert production. I can't think of the last new score that so clearly cried out for the huge orchestra-and-choir treatment, and Hunchback surely has enough fans to fill Lincoln Center for a weekend of shows. But until that happens, I'm grateful to executive producer Kurt Deutsch of Ghostlight Records and album producers Kosarin, Menken, Schwartz, and Chris Montan for giving us such a satisfying listening experience.


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