The busy afterlife of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," Victor Hugo's 1831 doorstop novel about a church bell ringer with severe chiropractic difficulties, continues with a musical adaptation that's notable for being the first stage collaboration between two titans of the American theater, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz.
Menken, who wrote the music for "Little Shop of Horrors" and "Newsies," is best known for his scores for numerous Disney films ("The Little Mermaid," and 'Beauty and the Beast" among them). Schwartz wrote the scores of two shows you might have heard a thing or two about, "Wicked" and "Pippin." Together, Menken and Schwartz won an Oscar for their "Pocahontas" song "Colors of the Wind."
Their show at La Jolla Playhouse, with a book by Peter Parnell, mixes songs they wrote for the 1996 Disney animated film version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" with new material to create a friendly monster of a different kind — a musical with an operatic body and a cartoon mind.
Why a respected nonprofit theater like La Jolla Playhouse would get involved in the American launch of this commercial enterprise (which premiered in Berlin in 1999) is a mystery that I'll leave to the accountants to clear up. The press materials make a comparison to "Peter and the Starcatcher," which Disney Theatrical Productions had developed in the Playhouse's Page to Stage program, but the similarities between these shows are superficial at best.
Directed by Scott Schwartz, the production (a collaboration with New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse) makes use of theatrical shorthand and impish humor in its conjuring of 15th century Paris. There's even a touch of metatheatricality: Michael Arden, who plays Quasimodo with boyish vulnerability, can be seen putting on his hump and sullying his appearance before assuming the role.
But the staging isn't all that committed to playfully exposing the rough magic of theatrical storytelling. The narrative here is the main order of business, and it's slightly embarrassing to see it enacted by grown-ups in a musical melodrama that takes itself a bit too seriously.
The talented Patrick Page, who plays the villainous Dom Claude Frollo, bears the heaviest burden. As Quasimodo's guardian and later jailer, he slithers around Notre Dame Cathedral like a priestly terror, uttering edicts with the ghoulish camp of Vincent Price.
As the bewitching gypsy Esmeralda, Ciara Renée has a soaring voice that's just right for Menken and Schwartz's songs, which give buttery pop sentiments maximal orchestral heat. When she dances one of choreographer Chase Brock's foot-stomping routines, it's easy to understand why Quasimodo longs for her, Frollo lusts after her and Captain Phoebus de Martin (a drolly winsome Andrew Samonsky) is willing to die for her. But as her character is modeled on a cartoon, it's hard to get too invested in the outcome of her romantic bind.
Alexander Dodge's scenic design, dominated by the shadowy cathedral, turns the City of Light into a crepuscular realm of danger and intrigue. The production has that enhanced gleam of Disney Theatrical Group projects, but it's the lush soundscape that is most impressive.
SACRA/PROFANA, a choral ensemble, supplies a divine vocal canopy. And the orchestra makes the journey from the celestial heights of "Heaven's Light" to the burning pits of "Hellfire" a thrilling ride.
But who is this "Hunchback" for? The Disney film was considered by some to be too dark for youngsters, and with the musical placing more emphasis on the sexual element, it's hard to imagine the show appealing to the stroller set.
Yet the message about the foolishness of judging by appearances ("What makes a monster and what makes a man?" is a culminating homiletic lyric) seems a bit too elementary for adults planning an expensive night on the town. What's more, the drama, though performed with unstoppable verve, has all the subtlety of a pop-up storybook.
Filled with action, suspense and romantic fantasies that don't have a chance in hell of being realized, the tale of the misshapen cathedral drone has built-in popular appeal. But this latest incarnation of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" has a horrible identity crisis on its hands.
'The Hunchback of Notre Dame'
Where: La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 14.
Tickets: Start at $15
Info: (858) 550-1010, www.lajollaplayhouse.org
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes