Disney Theatricals — the powerful group behind all the Broadway adaptations of Disney films, which have ranged from megahits like “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast” to disappointments like “Tarzan” and “The Little Mermaid” — has now brought to the stage the 1996 animated musical “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
But “Hunchback” isn’t on Broadway — at least not yet. It’s currently premiering at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, where “Newsies” was first seen back in 2011.
Compared to the athletic peppiness of “Newsies” and the old-fashioned razzle dazzle of “Aladdin,” “Hunchback” makes for an unusually dark and chilling piece of musical theater which explores physical deformity, religious extremism, sexual repression and even genocide. This may be the first Disney musical meant for adults rather than kids.
Based on the Victor Hugo novel, the hunchbacked Quasimodo (Michael Arden) lives secluded in the belle tower of Notre Dame, looked after by church official Dom Claude Frollo (Patrick Page). Their lives are changed by the enticing gypsy Esmeralda (Ciara Renée), with Frollo determined to possess her and, if that fails, terminate her. Quasimodo, with the help of a military captain (Andrew Samonsky), tries to save Esmeralda.
The rich score, with music by Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast”) and lyrics of Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked”), has been significantly expanded beyond the handful of songs from the movie. Though not exactly catchy, the songs have a hefty weight that reflects the source material.
With a lavish set resembling the Notre Dame cathedral, the lavish, medieval-style production is built around a direct storytelling concept in which the versatile cast is enacting the famous tale for the audience. They are backed by a large church-style choir, adding a great deal of vocal power.
Arden gives a vibrant performance as Quasimodo, who can barely communicate with others.
Page, who has made a sort of specialty out of playing villains in musicals such as “The Lion King” and “Spider-Man,” combines a commanding presence and deep baritone voice with shades of Frollo’s complexities.
While the commercial potential of “Hunchback” is uncertain, it may be in Disney’s interest to bring this to Broadway, if just to show that it can produce more than just family-friendly fare.
If you go: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” plays through April 5 at Paper Mill Playhouse. 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, New Jersey. papermill.org.