Blame It on Stephen Sondheim, or the growing frenzy in contemporary theater to have one's work be hailed as "original" or "unconventional." This tendency to use wacky source material for a musical—from the presidential hit men of Sondheim's Assassins to the Siamese twin sisters in the recent Broadway epic Sideshow—has clearly gotten out of hand.
Hunchback: The New Rock Musical
King Cat Theater
ends November 22
Take the current case of Hunchback. Any regular Joe and Jane out there could give several reasons over a beer why a rock musical version of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not a really good idea. They'd probably say things like, "It's kind of depressing, isn't it?" or "What does rock music have to do with Paris in 1482?" Then there's the hunchback, who's deaf from all those bells, as the romantic lead. (I know Phantom sort of pulls something similar off, but with his roses, magic mirrors, and organ music, the Phantom sure knew how to treat a lady.)
For Hunchback to succeed, it would need to deftly pole-vault over all these difficulties by having everything else be so brilliant that these questions never arise—which, unfortunately, C. Rainey Lewis' piece fails to do. It's a shame, as some of the elements of this show are pleasingly professional. Serious credit must go to Mark Kane's choreography, which, ranging from energetic contemporary dance to Indian-inspired stuff complete with finger cymbals, is lively, humorous, and plentiful. Lewis' music is also surprisingly sophisticated for a rock score; if only the sound system in the King Cat Theater had allowed more than just every third word to be intelligible.
Lewis' decision to both direct and play the lead (that's right, it's a woman under that googly-eyed mask and foam-rubber hump) sinks the show's virtues every time the dance and music start to pick it up. What tiny bits of acting occur between songs is largely rudimentary. While Guy Bogar as Phoebus, Nadia Deleye as Esmeralda, and Stefan Mitchell as the Poet are solid in the best old-trouper tradition, Rainey and most of the rest of the cast are flat. There's an air of dispirited effort about this show, as if the company realized a while back that their task was primarily Sisyphean and that nothing could keep this rock extravaganza from heading downhill fast.