Music: Alan Menken; Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz; Book: Peter Parnell
At: Music Theater Works at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston. Tickets: 847-920-5360 or MusicTheaterWorks.com; $34-$96. Runs through: Aug. 25
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not the final production of Music Theater Works artistic director Rudy Hogenmiller and founder/general manager Bridget McDonough. There's still a Lerner & Loewe revue and a ubiquitous Andrew Lloyd Webber musical yet to come before the two officially retire.
But The Hunchback of Notre Dame feels like a grand finale to the Music Theater Works tenure of Hogenmiller and McDonough. Hogenmiller directs a majestic and gloriously sung production that is remarkable for many reasons.
Music Theater Works' Hunchback marks the musical's professional Chicago-area premiere. And that's amazing considering that a stage musical version of Disney's 1996 animated feature debuted in 1999 ( a German-language Berlin production ran for three years ).
Yet other Disney Hunchback productions didn't proliferate. It's likely due to the global success of the rival 1998 French pop/rock Hunchback musical called Notre Dame de Paris.
Disney finally fashioned an English-language Hunchback for two regional tryouts in 2014 at California's La Jolla Playhouse and in 2015 at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse. Yet Disney ultimately opted not to transfer Hunchback to Broadway.
So Music Theater Works jumped at the opportunity to lavish attention on Hunchback's local debut. The expanded Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz score calls for huge choral forces, and Music Theater Works obliges with a full orchestra and a powerful onstage chorus stored in a grand gothic unit set borrowed from Front Row Theatrical Rental.
Hunchback also vocally soars with a 40-plus cast. The leading standouts include Billy Dawson as the bell ringer Quasimodo, Kent Joseph as the repressed archdeacon Dom Claude Frollo, Erik Dohner as the cathedral guard captain Phoebus de Martin and Anna Marie Abbate as the vivacious Esmeralda.
Peter Parnell's script features loads of narrators to get across Victor Hugo's 1482-set drama of religious hypocrisy and repression of the minority Roma travelers ( an element that makes Hunchback so disturbingly relevant ). So Hogenmiller's production aptly creates a storytelling ensemble who rotate in and out of small roles ( including the stone gargoyles that offer advice to Quasimodo, who get downplayed compared to the huge comic relief they play in the animated film ).
My only issues really with Music Theater Works' Hunchback is that some of the performers don't plumb the full emotional depths of their characters in their acting. And I still have qualms about the show's origins of taking a Victor Hugo tragic novel and forcing it to fit into the mold of a Disney animated musical.
But otherwise Music Theater Works' Hunchback is an impressive and theatrical marvel. It's also a fitting early sendoff to both Hogenmiller and McDonough.