Disney's Hunchback soars high in Berlin
Photo by Johan Persson
On a recent trip to Berlin, I took the opportunity to visit the majestic Stage Theater des Westens in the heart of the German capital, currently hosting the European premiere of the latest incarnation of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (or 'Der Glöckner von Notre Dame' in German). Indeed, Berlin has had quite the shared history with Quasimodo and friends. Back in June 1999, the world premiere of the musical officially opened at the Musical Theater Berlin in Potsdamer Platz, which marked the first and only time Disney Theatrical premiered a production outside of the US or UK. The show quickly became a critical and commercial hit, running for three years in Berlin and closing in June 2002. Hitting the stage only three years after the release of Disney's animated classic of the same name - the 34th classic in the series - the original world premiere was directed by three-time Tony Award winner James Lapine, who also wrote the book, later translated into German by Michael Kunze. The musical was praised for its gothic and much darker tone, but a Broadway or West End transfer was not to be seen.
Fast forward 12 years and the first official North American premiere of the stage musical finally takes place in San Diego, opening at La Jolla Playhouse in October 2014. The new production transferred to the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in March 2015, and although the venue is widely utilised as a tryout ground for the Great White Way, alas Quasimodo once again was denied the bright lights of Broadway. Instead, thanks to the European musical bohemoth that is Stage Entertainment, this new incarnation now finds itself back where it all began. Featuring a new book by Peter Parnell and directed by Scott Schwartz, the European premiere opened at Stage Theater des Westens in April of this year and is set to play a limited engagement through to 4 November 2017. The Hunchback is currently scheduled to play succeeding runs in Munich at the Deutsches Theater from 11 November 2017 through to 7 January 2018 and then at Stuttgart's Stage Apollo Theater from 20 February through to 9 September 2018. Beyond then, the question remains... Will Quasimodo ring out the infamous bells on our shores?
In my humble opinion, The Hunchback of Notre Dame features probably the most underrated of all of Alan Menken's classic musical scores. Although the score was nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe in 1997, it left those ceremonies empty-handed, failing to gain the overwhelming recognition and momentum that Menken predecessors The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin had accumulated. The score also marks one of the few collaborations between Menken as composer and fellow Broadway legend Stephen Schwartz as lyricist, so it comes as no surprise that Schwartz's son Scott takes the reigns as director of this stage version. And what an outstanding job he has done at the helm.
What sets this musical apart is the intimate and yet epic staging inside Stage Theater des Westens. It begins with the entire cast entering in grey habits, mixed in with a 24-strong choir, who are dressed identically and remain on stage throughout the entire production. The decision to incorporate the choir into the action on stage is ingenious and adds such a wealth of spine-tingling richness to the score. Gradually the players, who each take a turn at breaking the fourth wall to narrate the story to the audience, disrobes to reveal their character. It isn't, however, the last time we see those habits as they are utilised throughout to portray the stone statues of Notre Dame, awoken within Quasimodo's imagination through desperate loneliness. The ensemble of statues comfort, advise and accompany our protagonist through his arc and provide a perfect theatrical opportunity to delve into the mind of Quasi, exposing his deepest longings. Speaking of the Hunchback, my hat goes off to the leading man David Jakobs, who has done an outstanding job - both vocally and physically - in bringing Quasimodo to life on stage. He walks onto the stage as a blank canvas and is transformed before our very eyes into the Hunchback, whereafter he exudes such a warmth that you are helplessly drawn to him. His renditions of "Out There" and "Heaven's Light" are utterly moving and his stage chemistry with leading lady Sarah Bowden as Esmeralda is wholly captivating and beautifully summed up by the "Top of the World" musical number. Ms. Bowden also masters the classics "God Help the Outcasts" and "Someday" (the latter as a duet with Phoebus, played by Maximilian Mann) with veteran skill. Although I do not want to give much away about the production, I will say that one show-stealing moment for myself was Felix Martin's rendition of 'Hellfire' - easily the darkest and most stirring Disney villain song in history - engulfed in red smoke and eerie lighting effects. The result is ominously breathtaking.
This stage version draws as much influence from the original source material of Victor Hugo's 1831 novel as it does from the 1996 animated classic and this is reflected in the gothic scenic design. The appearance of the seven, enormous bells of Notre Dame engulfs the stage impressively, but Schwartz has also used a host of imaginative, theatrical tricks to transport the audience to other locations around and beneath Paris within the confines of the mostly static set. All in all, the production is simply a triumph of storytelling that radiates class.
If you have any grasp of the German language at all, then this production is a must-see for you and I urge you to make a trip to Berlin (or Munich or Sturrgart), but even if you don't know your Bockwurst from your Bratwurst, the spectacle of the show and the opportunity to hear that richly textured Menken score live are certainly worth the price of a plane ticket. Interestingly, the European premiere proudly sports the Disney logo on all of its posters and advertising - something which the mouse was reluctant to allow during the North American productions. Let us hope that this is a sign of the company's growing confidence in the title within the commerical theatre sector. The Hunchback of Notre Dame cannot be categorised as a family show and, at least on the night I attended in Berlin, the theatre was packed with adults with hardly any youngsters to be seen. The important part of that last sentence though was that it was indeed packed... And I, for one, would very much welcome a West End transfer of the show and see one of our beautiful theatres packed and transformed into Notre Dame... Someday.
Until then, I'll leave you with these poignant production photos.
All photos by Johan Persson © Disney
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