'Hunchback'

Bryce Slocumb is Clopin Trouillefou in the Jefferson Performing Arts Society's production of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame.'  

The quality of the Jefferson Performing Arts Society’s performances has come a long way since its inaugural productions in its new home on Airline Drive.

The thrilling, powerful “Hunchback of Notre Dame” is by far JPAS's most accomplished achievement to date.

Sharply directed by Michael McKelvey, this powerful musical soars to life with resplendent vocals (music direction by Donna Clavijo) and stunning visual images.

Based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel and featuring songs from the 1996 animated Disney film, this classic tells the story of Quasimodo, a grotesquely deformed cathedral bell-ringer, and his love for the gypsy dancer Esmeralda, the first person to show him true kindness.

It is 1492 in Paris, and Quasimodo (Enrico Cannella) is kept hidden in the bell tower by the pious priest Frollo (Dennis Jesse). His only friends are the church gargoyles — symbols of our hero’s fractured mind — who encourage him to venture outside on the day of the gypsy celebration, the Feast of Fools. In doing so, he alters lives forever.

The stage show, restoring the novel’s tragic ending, is a darker version than the cartoon. This “Hunchback,” with a book by Peter Parnell, music by Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast”), and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked”), is not a great musical but it does contain many GREAT numbers breathtakingly staged as any you’ll see this season!

The stage bursts with life at the Feast of Fools celebration, where the mischievous gypsy leader Clopin (Bryce Slocumb) brings sly fun and refreshing energy to the toe-tapping “Topsy Turvy.” Jaune Buisson’s energetic choreography is polished, although not particularly original.

Cannella is terrific in the title role, creating a lovable albeit unthreatening Quasimodo. His voice is capable of hitting high notes with purity and power singing such knockout numbers as “Out There” and the spectacular “Heaven’s Light.”

The script demands Frollo delve into some corrupt places in his soul. His carnal desire for Esmeralda wracks him with an inner turmoil of Shakespearean proportions. Jesse’s cover of stern discipline often masks exploration of his dark inner impulses, but his gorgeous baritone voice charges full throttle into the hair-raising “Hellfire.”

Portraying the enchanting Esmeralda, Micah Desonier has never been better. With her angelic voice, she brings an unforgettable honesty to “God Help the Outcasts” and “Top of the World,” a rapturous new song not in the movie.

As Phoebus, the cathedral’s swashbuckling captain of the guard, strong-voiced John Michael Haas must make the difficult transition from wisecracking ladies’ man to Esmeralda’s dutiful protector and love interest. At present, Haas seems more comfortable as devoted Phoebus rather than the debonair one.

Haas’ exhilarating second act duet with Desonier, “Someday,” and the rousing group song “In a Place of Miracles” are Broadway-caliber brilliant.

A splendid addition is a choral ensemble — 34 members of Jefferson Chorale. Combined with the philharmonic supremacy of the JPAS Symphony Orchestra, they create a majestic presence intensifying several songs and taking full focus with the rapturous Act Two opener “Agnus Dei.”

Artistic director and maestro Dennis G. Assaf has pulled out all the stops by leasing the colossal, ingenious set — with its massive sliding platforms, towering staircases and descending church bells — from the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine.

Jean-Yves Tessier's ominous, colorful lighting design works best when not relying on an overly apparent spotlight.

Parnell’s adaptation labors from the heavy use of narration where members of the ensemble describe lengthy plot developments, bringing the action to an uncomfortable standstill.

Impassioned and romantic anthems abound, but the score suffers from too many attempts at showstoppers. Like an episode of “American Idol,” every song attempts to hit it out of the park. (Remarkably — like the glorious Act One climax “Esmeralda” — many actually do.)

As always, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” remains an epic, haunting story, a stirring plea for compassion and an inspiring reminder of the hazards of judging others by appearances.

Bruce Burgun is a retired theater professor from Indiana University and a member of the American Theater Critics Association.

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“The Hunchback of Notre Dame"

WHEN: Through March 4

WHERE: Jefferson Performing Arts Center

6400 Airline Drive, Metairie

TICKETS: $40-$75

INFO: (504) 885-2000; jpas.org

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