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Not your typical Disney production: HCT's 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' gets dark

SANDY — To those who hear the name Disney and automatically think “kid friendly,” Dave Tinney, director of Hale Centre Theatre’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” has a word of advice: Leave your Disney princesses at home for this one.

Victor Hugo’s Gothic novel about a deformed bell ringer who has been isolated and imprisoned by a priest his whole life has seen multiple film iterations since it was first penned in 1831, perhaps most notably Disney’s 1996 animated “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” With music by prolific Disney composer Alan Menken (who will be performing in the Beehive State next month), the adaptation was lighthearted compared to its source material, but many still considered it to be dark by Disney standards.

While “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” hasn’t gone down in Disney history as its most successful film — according to Den of Geek, the film raked in less than a third in the box office as what “The Lion King” had done two years earlier — the music and characters found their way onto the stage, first in 1999 in Germany, then in 2014 at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse and in many regional productions since, including the upcoming production at HCT running Feb. 5-March 31.

Although the musical does have many similarities to the Disney film, it delves into darker plot points and themes, according to members of HCT’s cast and crew, making it a show more suited to an older audience.

“The stage version didn't seem to have the restrictions of a Disney targeted demographic that the film did,” Tinney wrote in an email interview. “The film, while dark for Disney, still softened many of the situations, characters and certainly the ending. The stage version stays truer to the ending of the novel.”

According to James Bounous, who plays Quasimodo in the Monday/Wednesday/Friday cast, the musical lands somewhere in between the Disney movie and the novel in terms of its darkness. While many of the characters are similar to the movie, some trickier plot points are more prominent in the musical, including the interactions between Quasimodo and his master, the priest Claude Frollo.

James Bounous as Quasimodo, left, Josh Richardson as Claude Frollo and Rebecca Burroughs as Esmeralda in the Monday/Wednesday/Friday cast of Hale Centre Theatre's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," which will run Feb. 5-March 31.
James Bounous is Quasimodo, left, Josh Richardson is Claude Frollo and Rebecca Burroughs is Esmeralda in the Monday/Wednesday/Friday cast of Hale Centre Theatre's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," which will run Feb. 5-March 31.
Douglas Carter

“The relationship between Frollo and Quasimodo can be quite painful,” Bounous said in a phone interview. “For anyone who has experienced any sort of manipulation in their lives — emotional or physical — or any abuse, it may bring up some rough memories that could be uncomfortable."

“This is not ‘Music Man.’ It is not ‘Mary Poppins.’ It is not ‘The Little Mermaid,’” said Sally Dietlein, HCT vice president and executive producer. “This covers some very, very rich, thought-provoking things, which is why it’s not recommended for young children.”

Topics covered in the musical include bullying, the way women are treated and the fallibility of humans — issues Dietlein said are not only timely but also provide important teaching moments.

From Tinney’s perspective, the musical allows for deeper, multifaceted characters, and the more difficult themes are fitting for Hugo’s story.

“In fact, very much like (Hugo’s) other popular novel-turned-musical, ‘Les Miserables,’ the show ventures into some heavy themes and situations that are necessary in order to ultimately lead the audience to understanding and redemption,” he said.

“It’s all about equality. It’s all about seeing other people as human beings, and it’s all about seeing through imperfections into who we really are,” Bounous said of the show's themes.

Audiences familiar with the Disney film will hear recognizable tunes, including “Topsy Turvy” and “God Help the Outcasts,” but HCT's adaptation takes a different approach to the music.

“The musical is musically more complex. In addition to an expanded score, the score is written structurally like a Catholic Mass, complete with choir and Latin lyrics,” Tinney said. “The Mass idea was incorporated, I think, to give the audience a sense of the time period and the overarching, dominating influence of the church and the cathedral.”

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is only the second production ever staged in HCT’s fully-loaded Centre Stage Theatre at its new home. While both Tinney and Dietlein were hesitant to give too much away about how the new technological capabilities will be used in the staging of “Hunchback,” both said it will all further the story.

And for those still wondering whether the musical will be appropriate for their children, Dietlein encourages parents to do their research.

“I tend to think this is a very moral piece and something that is such a teaching tool and has such beauty that it’s so worth seeing,” she said. “(HCT is) foursquare a family theater, but we do theater that also matters — and this one matters.”

If you go ...

What: Hale Centre Theatre's production of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"

When: Feb. 5-March 31, dates and times vary

Where: Hale Centre Theatre's Centre Stage Theatre, 9900 S. Monroe St., Sandy

How much: $40 for adults, $20 for youths

Phone: 801-984-9000