"A musical version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame? What next? Hello, Dracula!?"

Really, it's only logical--if not inevitable--that after the successes of The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, someone would try to put a third French novel to work as a musical play. Also, since all three translated so well to film (Les Mis five times, Hunchback and Phantom at least four each), wouldn't it only follow that it's Quasimodo's turn to take another shot at the big time?

What's that, you say? They're pillaging great masterpieces and trivializing them into cheap, instant-access, low-brow mall culture? Well, you're right, but does it surprise you? The musical theatre has made a science out of gutting great literature and turning it into crowd-pleasing, disposable art for the mass market. But don't forget, no one threw away the original. For every person who thinks this kind of playwriting is the reduction of substance into nonsense, there's a novice who takes a tip from the popular culture version of a work and seeks it out in its original form.

Besides, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is just the next in a series of public domain horror classics to attempt a comeback by adding music to a story the public already knows. The fact of the matter is, nothing is immune. Kirk Douglas once sang the title role in a hideous made-for-TV musical recasting of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And, if Phillip Glass is reportedly working on an opera version of Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, could an all-singing, all-dancing retelling of the Frankenstein story be far behind?

But to get back to the Hunchback, there's no question that Hugo's novel has what it takes to make a great stage play. Exotic characters, a love story involving three men obssessed by the same woman, and a dramatic setting--medieval Paris and the Cathedral of Notre Dame--can go a long way. But could it succeed as a musical? Well, we have a chance to find out because macabre or not, a 38-year-old Scottsdale man named Brian Stewart has written a musical based on the nineteenth-century novel, and it's now receiving its premiere production at Thunderbird High School. The news is, there's more wrong with it than right.

MDRVThe composer-playwright isn't just a guy out of the blue. He reports that he has recorded over 100 songs and produced several albums of Christian music for Phoenix First Assembly as well as records for children. He also said that he has written an animated script which is "in development" at Disney Studios. His script for Hunchback was written in five months, and, he claims, has drawn the interest of a New York producer.

Stewart has taken on a mighty big project, and it's plain that his product is not yet ready to take the Great White Way by storm--if it ever will be. To his credit, Stewart has not advertised his work as a finished piece. It's clearly a work in progress, and it doesn't pretend to be anything else.

While the play does manage in its two-hour running time to tell the whole story, in its current form it is so flawed that it is sometimes almost unwatchable.

For starters, Hunchback's pop-rock score lacks any unifying theme and it doesn't suit the darkness of Hugo's story. Quasimodo's opening song, "King of Fools," for example, is upbeat and bouncy and doesn't mesh with the character at all.

Stewart imitates composers as diverse as Giorgio Moroder, Aaron Copland, Barry Manilow, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, with a few Gregorian-chant-sounding interludes thrown in for some cathedral atmosphere. The entire orchestral part of the work seems to be performed on synthesizer (the program credits no musicians) and needed something to relieve the monotonous electronic whine.

It's also pretty obvious that Stewart had a lot more music than he had words for. Several scenes are played out against patterns of swirling strings, tinkling bells, celestial choirs and what struck us as a fair imitation of humpbacked whales. All of this "background" music frequently smothered the dialogue, which, considering the cast's overall problems with projection, is a real mistake. In one tune, the uncomfortably slow-moving "Do You Confess, Girl"--during which Esmerelda is tried for witchcraft--the actors sing only every other measure. One can't begin to imagine the composer's intent, but the result is awful.

Produced by Thunderbird High School, The Hunchback of Notre Dame features a large, diverse cast. Unfortunately, none of them seem to be actors. At least two, however, are male exotic dancers. (The rippling muscleman who plays the executioner looked like he had just stepped out of a Chippendale's calendar.) The principals (all of whom, we assume, are adults) are responsible for some really bad acting--and singing, too. The Gypsy vagabonds and the townspeople of Paris are played by a gaggle of squeaky-clean teens who pad about the stage with sweetly self-conscious sincerity.

The director, Galen Gallegos, undertakes the physically demanding role of Quasimodo. He makes quite a visual statement, scampering around under his painful-looking hump. But his make-up, though it makes him look properly deformed, is so rigid that it renders his face completely expressionless, like a waxworks from Madame Toussaud's.

This brings us to the final, and maybe fatal, flaw. To wit, it is simply not possible for an audience to take seriously a one-eyed, rock-singing hunchback with what appears to be pie crust all over his face. Quasimodo was nearly deaf from his years in the belfry and could barely speak. For him to suddenly be able to sing, beautifully and articulately, about his own condition and of his love for Esmerelda is just too much of a stretch.

At this stage, Stewart's opus seems to be nothing more than a monumental waste of time. It certainly is not good theatre. Still, the play has moments, brief and very chilling, when one feels that he might be on to something and that this thing could be made to work. If people thought Victor Hugo was turning in his grave over Les Miserables, this one will really ring his chimes.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame continues through September 29 at Thunderbird High School, 1750 West Thunderbird. See THEATRE listing in Thrills for more information.

It is simply not possible for an audience to take seriously a one-eyed, rock-singing hunchback with what appears to be pie crust all over his face.


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