Fort Lauderdale's Slow Burn Theatre is launching its seventh season with "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," the most ambitious production in its short, impressive history.
Given that the company has taken on and conquered such challenging musicals as "Parade," "Sweeney Todd," "Next to Normal," "Side Show," "Big Fish" — well, it's a long list — the show based on the 1996 animated Disney movie and Victor Hugo's 1831 novel would seem to be squarely in its wheelhouse.
Indeed, in the newly opened "Hunchback" at the Broward Center's Amaturo Theater, director-choreographer Patrick Fitzwater, his creative collaborators and a large cast (and chorus) deliver one engaging, accomplished production. What they can't do, though, is excise the musical's cartoon roots from Peter Parnell's cliché-filled book.
The show debuted in Berlin in German in 1999, enjoying a three-year run under director and former book writer James Lapine, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Stephen Sondheim collaborator. When it came time to make a run at Broadway with an English-language version, composer Alan Menken ("The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Newsies," "Aladdin") and lyricist Stephen Schwartz ("Godspell," "Pippin," "Wicked") wrote several new songs, and Parnell contributed the script. The musical had regional theater tryout runs in California and New Jersey, but Broadway didn't happen.
This take on "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is touted as having a darker tone than Disney's animated version, and indeed, death figures more vividly into the story. But there are many shades of darkness, and "Hunchback" never gets much deeper than gray. If "Les Misérables," Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil's take on that Hugo classic, is an enduring musical achievement, "Hunchback" is a less impressive piece with some strong songs.
That observation isn't meant to diminish what Fitzwater and company have achieved with Slow Burn's production. Indeed, the Amaturo audience seems thoroughly entertained and enthusiastic about the show, thanks to all the talent onstage and behind the scenes.
The story they tell, you may remember, centers on Quasimodo (Bobby Cassell), a young man who was born with a severely deformed spine in late 15th century Paris. Taken in as a baby by his uncle Claude Frollo (Matthew Korinko), he becomes the bell ringer at the cathedral of Notre Dame, where the severe and judgmental Frollo is archdeacon. Quasimodo's strictly controlled life inside the soaring medieval cathedral that is his home, sanctuary and a kind of beautiful prison keeps him away from the scorn and torment of the outside world. But his job tolling the church's thunderous bells has made him almost totally deaf, leaving him barely able to communicate through a combination of slurred speech and his own invented sign language.
Defying Frollo, Quasimodo sneaks out of Notre Dame to watch a Gypsy celebration, the Feast of Fools. There, he spies the stunning Esmeralda (Shenise Nuñez), an alluring dancer who encourages Quasimodo to enter the competition to become King of Fools. He does so, is "crowned" with a jester's hat, then attacked by the crowd as Frollo refuses to intervene on behalf of his disobedient charge.
Esmeralda becomes the catalyst for hope in Quasimodo, who finally finds a real friend instead of the gargoyles and statues who have been his imaginary confidantes; for love in Phoebus (Landon Summers), the handsome captain of the Paris guard; and for murderous lust in Frollo, whose signature song is "Hellfire," which Korinko tears into while bathed in fiery red light (what else?).
What Fitzwater, his 15 actors, an 18-member chorus, the eight-piece orchestra led by musical director Caryl Fantel, set designer Sean McClelland, lighting designer Becky Montero, sound designer Rich Szczublewski and the impressively prolific costume designer Rick Peña achieve is pretty close to impeccable. Even an opening-night glitch, when a sound-board crash forced Fitzwater to stop and restart the show, didn't throw Slow Burn's nimble, polished pros.
Clambering over McClelland's set, with its platforms and rafters and massive central "stained glass" window, Cassell delivers a stellar, heart-wrenching performance as Quasimodo. He shifts effectively between the character's limited speech and the soaring beauty of the music that comes from within.
The lovely Nuñez and spirited Summers make a dashing romantic pair, their voices gorgeously entwining as they sing the hope-filled "Someday." Korinko, Slow Burn's executive director and another of its greatest assets, exudes menace and conflicted desire as Frollo. Trev Whittaker, Jinon Deeb and Joshua Kolb also deliver strong performances, respectively, as Clopin, Florika and Jehan/St. Aphrodisius.
As noted, Slow Burn's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is an admirably realized, audience-delighting production of a musical that never approaches anything transcendent. But for many theatergoers, that will be enough.
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is running through Nov. 6 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $47-$60. To order, call 954-462-0222 or go to BrowardCenter.org.