If this were 1994, Broadway producers would be all over Dennis DeYoung's musical version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Hire somebody to write a new, richer book, they'd be saying. Find some hot designers. Seduce some star names. But whatever you do after this rough-and-ready outing at the Bailiwick Repertory Theatre, keep those brooding power ballads and thrilling melody lines. Very few composers can write such seductive hooks. And the theater needs 'em all.
But time has moved on. Broadway is no longer in the thrall of throbbing, gothic tales set to grandiose rock-pop scores, but prefers more glancing, ironic fare. And so, I fear, it felt on Monday night like the moment has passed for DeYoung's "Hunchback," even though the joint was suffused with infectious musical passion and DeYoung's soaring, populist score is surely the equal of any of the Frank Wildhorn creations that made millions in the 1990s.
Even in the best of prior circumstances, the show would have needed a lot of work. The book is barely a book—the central character of Quasimodo remains an elusive, underwritten figure. Even in this simplified version of the Victor Hugo novel, you don't see the moment where the priest Frollo falls in love with Esmerelda, nor do you feel the growth of Quasimodo's love. The overall romantic mood of the piece is compromised by some tacky comedic dialogue ("Why don't you go back to Egypt where you belong?" "Phar-enough?"). And there's no sense of the majestic, metaphoric sweep that made "Les Miserables" such a phenomenon.
To call David Zak's heartfelt production a mixed bag does not adequately describe its contrasts. Aided by an enhanced sound system, a six-piece band and several Equity contracts, some of the singing is spectacular. And in the person of George Andrew Wolff, there's a powerful lead performance. Given the hump and the lack of characterization, there were a million ways for Wolff to camp this up. Instead, he offers a moving take on this reclusive fellow and belts his problems to the rafters. As Esmerelda, Dana Tretta stuffs her heart into her mouth and gives it her considerable all. And although not ideally cast, James Rank brings his usual humanity and vocal integrity to the role of the soldier Phoebus.
But some of the growling ensemble work is about as subtle as a kick in your bad teeth. And as the tortured guardian of Notre Dame, the typically impressive Jeremy Rill seems lost in the belfry, reduced to ringing his hands and wandering awkwardly. The setting—platforms and a couple of projections—is so limited that you wonder, at times, if this endeavor would not have been better served as a concert staging. Certainly, there's no real choreography, even though the capable Brenda Didier is on hand.
But if you just want to hear DeYoung's great music, this show mostly delivers. The top-notch signature ballad, "With Every Heartbeat," is performed in bravura fashion. So is the moving "Esmerelda." And I'm very fond of "Who Will Love This Child?" DeYoung's fans will be impressed at the care taken here with their man's compositions and the passion and sincerity behind their musical expression.
In ideal circumstances, someone would come up with the ideal new vehicle and partners for DeYoung to compose for the stage. He could help put Broadway back in touch with some of its hardest-working customers.
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" When: Through August 31 (extends) Where: Bailiwick Repertory Theatre, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes Tickets: $25-$45 at 773-883-1090