As pure spectacle, La Jolla Playhouse's American premiere of the stage musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an unqualified success. The tale of the outcast Quasimodo unfolds inside the belfry of Notre Dame Cathedral on a jaw-dropping set designed by Alexander Dodge. Add the elaborate costumes of 15th-century Paris and the cathedral statues and stained-glass windows that magically come to life, and you have as visually exciting a production as has been staged in San Diego in recent memory.
If only the score were the equal of the visuals. This show, directed by Scott Schwartz, and produced in association with New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse "by special arrangement" with Disney Theatrical Productions, features the same songs composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz wrote for the 1996 animated film. That means that the anthemic "The Bells of Notre Dame" and the rip-roaring "Hellfire" (the closest thing to a show-stopper) are intermingled with saccharine ballads like "In a Place of Miracles" and "Someday." While the sheer sweetness of the musical storytelling that typified the Disney cartoon is less on display at the Playhouse, there's still an overload of earnestness in the romance between gypsy Esmeralda and handsome Capt. Phoebus, and the tried-and-true "triumph of the human spirit" specter lurks behind every narrative corner.
Quarrels with the score aside, Brent-Alan Huffman's direction of a towering orchestra and the solemn vocals of the SACRA / PROFANA choral ensemble fill the theater with emotion. Noteworthy, too, are some exceptional performances, topped by stentorian-voiced Patrick Page as the villainous Dom Claude Frollo. Ciara Renee is beautiful and evocative as Esmeralda, and in the title role, Michael Arden, laudably conveying Quasimodo's torment, humanity and heroism.
Even with these intuitive star turns, Hunchback relies heavily on exposition, straining to remind us that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that we make our own monsters. A disappointing finale that might have been brilliant ultimately resorts to telling instead of showing. But, in any case, this show's Broadway feel suggests it could be New York-bound.
The Burial at Thebes: In ancient Greece, Antigone pays the price for defying her uncle and burying her brother, who's viewed as a traitor. Opens Nov. 12 at UCSD's Mandell Weiss Forum Theatre. theatre.ucsd.edu
Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas: A total jerk is surprised when his tiny, wretched heart grows by a factor of three. Opens Nov. 15 at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. theoldglobe.org
Enron: A highly stylized, satirical chronicle of the scandal-driven downfall of the Houston energy company and its arrogant CEO, Jeffrey Skilling. Opens Nov. 13 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando. moxietheatre.com
I Do, I Do, I Do: A woman is in a heap o' trouble after promising to marry three different dudes. Opens Nov. 14 at PowPAC in Poway. powpac.org
Pericles, Prince of Tyre: A young prince sails the seas, falls in love and marries, loses his wife and then his daughter and eventually lives happily ever after. Opens Nov. 15 at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. theoldglobe.org
Twelfth Night: After a shipwreck, much love is professed and identities are mistaken on the Adriatic coast. Opens Nov. 13 at MiraCosta College in Oceanside. miracosta.edu/theatre
Wicked: The Wizard of Oz, told from the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West and Glenda the Good Witch. Presented by Broadway San Diego, it opens Nov. 12 at the Civic Theatre, Downtown. broadwaysd.com
Freud's Last Session: Mark St. Germain's play chronicles a fictional meeting between renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and novelist C.S. Lewis. Through Nov. 16 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. northcoastrep.org
Calendar Girls: A stage adaptation of the 2003 film about a group of mature women who pose nude for a calendar to raise money for the fight against leukemia. Through Nov. 23 at Swedenborg Hall in University Heights. Search for "Sullivan Players" on Facebook.
Spamalot: Fred is not yet dead in the musical version of the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Through Nov. 30 at Coronado Playhouse. coronadoplayhouse.com
Absurd Person Singular: The marriages of three couples are dissected in a play that's set at parties on successive Christmas Eves. Presented by Scripps Ranch Theatre, it runs through Dec. 7 at the Legler Benbough Theatre in Scripps Ranch. scrippsranchtheatre.org
Honky: Race relations are examined in this play about a shoe company that sees sales to white kids soar after a black youth is murdered for his shoes. Presented by San Diego Repertory Theatre, it runs through Dec. 7 at the Lyceum Theatre at Horton Plaza, Downtown. sdrep.org
The Hunchback of Notre Dame: A new musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's story of the not-super-attractive bell ringer Quasimodo and the enchanting gypsy Esmeralda. Through Dec. 7 at La Jolla Playhouse. lajollaplayhouse.com
Win Place or Die My Jockeys are Killing Me: Mystery Café's latest comic-caper dinner-theater production is set at the Thoroughbred Club at Upson Down Race Track. It's ongoing at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill. mysterycafe.net