Victor Hugo's magnificent, sardonic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame is everywhere you look these days. Disney's animated musical interpretation was a smash hit, and even The Simpsons television sitcom satirized Andrew Lloyd Webber's penchant for musicalizing tragedies in its hilarious "Hunchback" episode. Still another rendering of the dark medieval tale hits the Denver boards this season--Christopher Selbie's lively, sentimental musical adaptation at the New Denver Civic Theatre, directed by and starring Selbie himself as the bell-ringing Beast of the cathedral.
Unlike the Disney treatment, Selbie's Beast is so in love with his Beauty that he gladly dies for her. And let us be clear: Selbie's version is a tragedy and is not suitable for young children. Older children will enjoy the spectacle if properly prepared for it, though it bears not the slightest resemblance to the Disney whitewash. Of course, the Disney P.C. version bears only the most passing resemblance to Hugo's story--and none at all to his intent.
Much closer to Hugo's vision is Selbie's resolutely atheistic distillation. Though it occasionally slides into gushy emotionalism, the show recommends itself with elaborate, graceful stage movement, terrific street scenes and an imaginative use of the Civic's space. Trimming out even a few of the important characters to effectively tell his parable of innocence at war with hypocrisy, Selbie's pared-down piece seizes on Hugo's obsession with the degradation of the street folk of Paris and the persecution of a despised minority, the Gypsies. Some of the performances are uneven and others a tad over the top. But as melodramatic as things sometimes get, there's at least never a dull moment.
The famous story concerns the dreadfully deformed Quasimodo, the ward and servant of the archdeacon of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Claude Frollo. The priest is really the beast, of course. Stern, intolerant and more than a bit weird, Frollo falls in love with Esmarelda, a magnificent young Gypsy girl who dances at the Feast of Fools for coins. She is also the darling of her community and as innocent as a lamb. When Frollo attempts to have her kidnapped by Quasimodo, she is rescued by a dashing soldier, and the next day Quasimodo is tried and whipped in the square. Only Esmarelda has the compassion to give him a drink of water. Quasimodo later returns the favor by saving her life--and by being the only man of all those who lust after her to actually love her.
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Selbie's Hunchback is a noble soul graced with self-knowledge, a bit of self-deprecating humor and a trainload of humility. Meredith Davis makes a lovely Esmarelda, with just the right blend of childlike purity and unself-conscious sexuality. You understand at once why the men are attracted to her and why she's so oblivious to their demands. Frollo is played by Steve Wilson, who has all the most extravagant language in the show and does an admirable job of juggling the ferocity and sexual obsession of his character.
Joey Wishnia, as always, makes a sterling presence, this time as a stern judge who is terribly hard of hearing and punishes others for his handicap. David White's ambitious music contains a number of lovely passages, several stirring anthems and a certain capacity to unnerve the viewer. Selbie and White drive home the social outrage thing with some force, but they are still able to embody Hugo's dry wit.
Beauty and the Beast is one of those stories with endless variations that people just never tire of. In Hugo's version, all the frustration of unrequited love rises up to lend the tale yet another dimension. And by staying true to Hugo, Selbie achieves an uncommon tone: peculiarly romantic on one level, but profoundly pessimistic on another. His beauty and beast are never liberated, after all--just united in nothingness.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, through October 12 at the New Denver Civic Theatre, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 595-0402.