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BERLIN A Stella presentation, in association with Walt Disney Theatrical Prods., of a musical in two acts with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by James Lapine, German-language version by Michael Kunze. Based on Victor Hugo's "Notre Dame de Paris." Directed by Lapine. Musical director, Klaus Wilhelm. Choreography by Lar Lubovitch. Sets, Heidi Ettinger; costumes, Sue Blane; lighting, Rick Fisher; sound, Tony Meola; projections, Jerome Sirlin; makeup and masks, Michael Ward; right director, B.H. Barry; technical director, Ulf Maschek; musical supervisor and arranger, Michael Kosarin; orchestrations, Michael Starobin; dance arranger, Glen Kelly; stage manager, William Metz. Based on the film by Tab Murphy, Irene Mecchi, Bob Tzudiker and Noni White and Jonathan Roberts. Opened June 5, 1999. Reviewed June 12. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.
Quasimodo                                       Drew Sarich
Frollo                                        Norbert Lamla
Clopin                                           Jens Janke
Esmeralda                                        Judy Weiss
Phoebus                                       Fredrik Lycke
Antoine                                        Tamas Ferkay
Charles                                      Valentine Zahn
Loni                                   Yvonne Ritz-Andersen
Domdekan                                       Carlo Lauber

With: David Oliver, Eladio Pamaran, Zoltan Tombor, Christopher Murray, Frank Logemann, Andreas Gergen, Andre Bauer, Ulrich Talle, Wolfgang Holtzel, Fabian Aloise, Ben Kazlauskaz, Andrew Gardner, Seth Lerner, Franc Tima, Gerald Michel, Christian Stuppeck, Philip Hogan, Scott Owen, Dominic Fortin, Petra Weidenbach, Luz Tolentino, Stephanie Reese, Ruby Rosales, Barbara Raunegger, Vera Bo]ten, Alyssa Preston, Inez Timmer, Sandy Nagel, Elena Frid, Coleen Besett, Patricia Gressley, Birge Funke, Danielle Gormann, Karin Sang.

Musical numbers: "Bells of Notre Dame," "Sanctuary," "Out There," "Hurry Hurry," "Balancing Act," "Rest and Recreation," "Topsy Turvy," "God Help the Outcasts," "Top of the World," "Heaven's Light," "Hell Fire," "Esmeralda," "City Under Siege," "A Guy Like You," "Out of Love," "Gypsy Dance," "Made of Stone," "Someday."

Musical theater stagecraft scales dizzying heights literally -- in the Berlin -- world premiere of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," the first Disney animated film to become a stage musical since "The Lion King" charged its way into Broadway record books. Will Quasimodo follow where Simba dared to roar? That much remains unclear, since Anglo-American audiences may demand a show as emotionally involving as it is technically involved. At present, as a symbol of the newly confident and international German capital-to-be, "Hunchback" soars high as it introduces an American musical theater revelation in the stooped form of 23-year-old newcomer Drew Sarich, who plays the title role. But only time, further tinkering and some inevitable recasting will tell whether a show whose design often reaches to the skies is itself ready to take off.

It's easy to see the appeal of a stage "Hunchback," especially to the Hamburg-based company Stella, which can count the not thematically dissimilar "Phantom of the Opera" and "Beauty and the Beast" among its German-language successes. Who is Quasimodo, after all, but this show's equivalent of the Phantom and the Beast -- a societal misfit locked in a world of yearning who may or may not get the girl? To that end, it's scant surprise that James Lapine's intimate yet massive production -- achieved with several of his erstwhile "Into the Woods" collaborators -- seems suspended intriguingly in limbo between a faux-musical blockbuster along the lines of the '80s Brit hits ("Les Miz," after all, shares the same source novelist, Victor Hugo) and a transcription a la "Lion King" that marked its own breathless aesthetic stampede.

What's missing is the unmistakable imprint of a director, like Julie Taymor, allied to a purely joyous love of theater capable of moving millions. Or maybe it's just that Lapine's passions are in fact too private (as the emotionally hermetic "Passion" in fact suggested) to deliver the affective goods on a scale to match a physical production that leaves no doubt whatsoever about how the show's historic $25 million budget was spent.

The design is likely to be the show's talking point in any language, coupling as it does the best of British and American talent with a new $100 million dollar-plus playhouse specifically adapted to accommodate the demands of the piece.

The aquamarine stage curtain, Gothic tracery already encoded within it, rises to reveal set designer Heidi Ettinger's ever-shifting array of cubes that join with Jerome Sirlin's projections to conjure the medieval world of the Parisian belltower inhabited by Sarich's misshapen orphan Quasimodo, his unyielding master Frollo (Norbert Lamla) and a trio of very chatty gargoyles who lead this show's answer to "Be Our Guest," the sprightly "A Guy Like You." It's among the many wonders of the design -- Rick Fisher's jets of light included -- to work by intimation and not by intimidation, while enfolding within it a triangular love story that finds Quasimodo and Frollo vying for the gypsy girl, Esmeralda (Judy Weiss), whose fate -- in marked contrast to the Disney film lies with neither man. (Complicating the geometry: The gallant Phoebus -- played by Fredrik Lycke -- this show's answer to "Les Miz's" Marius.) While platforms shoot out from the sides of the set, very little actually gets played on the stage itself, apart from the occasional scene of roisterous street life that Lar Lubovitch's choreography makes somewhat self-consciously "colorful."

The prevailing tone, indeed, is far and away the most somber of the three Disney film-to-stage shows yet. That's in keeping with the Gothic intensity of Hugo's 1831 novel, if not with the facetious screenplay of three years ago whose central character, the relentlessly cutesy "Quasi," bears scant relation to the afflicted figure Sarich so memorably cuts here, complete with a soaring tenor that suggests him as a potential Phantom. It helps that Sarich benefits from some of the evening's most singular images, among them the sudden, stark sight of Quasimodo hoisting Esmeralda aloft after a rescue that has the performer vaulting about the set in fearless pursuit of his not-quite-prize.

So why isn't the show as a whole more affecting? To this non-German speaker, the answer has little to do with language. (Countless operas have thrilled countless listeners in tongues not spoken by their audience.) The answer lies in part with Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken's Oscar-nommed score (much fortified for the stage show), which is actually at its best in the Weill-ian strains of the narrator Clopin's opener, "The Bells of Notre Dame," sinuously delivered by Jens Janke, later doubling as the Gypsy King. Elsewhere, away from its liturgical impulses (and notwithstanding the enduring hummability of "Esmeralda"), the music tilts towards the generic. That's a shame, given the conditions that Schwartz's lyrics describe, complete with references to ethnic cleansing that would seem guaranteed to strike a chord with audiences in Germany and beyond.

Furthermore, neither Lamla nor Weiss yet fully embodies (and for very different reasons) his or her point on an amorous spectrum that comes commendably presented in shades of gray rather than the simplistic black and white that one might expect. Replacing originally cast Steve Barton (a "Phantom" alum), Lamla makes a rather relentlessly dour Frollo, a man in thrall to lustful impulses that seem to surprise even himself. Local girl Weiss simply isn't up to the expressive demands of a fought-over heroine; for all the brouhaha Esmeralda engenders, Weiss remains a blank.

That may not matter to a public caught up in a buzz that goes beyond the hype of a Broadway or West End premiere to embrace issues of national pride. (At the perf caught, the musical got an even longer ovation than that encountered last year in Vienna at "Dance of the Vampires," which is a far less accomplished piece.) There's no doubt whatsoever that this "Hunchback" carries real heft here, even as one awaits with genuine interest the show's (and the incomparable Sarich's) next, no-doubt mammoth, step.3
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Date:Jun 21, 1999
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