Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (The SOB Review)

The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (The SOB Review) – Bailiwick Repertory Theater, Chicago, IL

*1/2 (out of ****)


What’s that eleventh hour line uttered by Mama Rose in Gypsy? Born too early and started too late?

Well, if there’s a contemporary musical equivalent, look no further than Dennis DeYoung, former front man for Styx, one of my personal favorite rock bands from the late 70s and early 80s. I always admired the theatricality of Styx’s work, which was certainly present in their “Grand Illusion” album back in 1977, but really sharpened with 1981’s “Paradise Theatre” and was exacerbated to the point of some ridicule with their 1983 album “Kilroy Was Here.”

It never mattered to me. I ate it all up.

Maybe it was because my own interest in musical theatre was burgeoning during those very years that I never minded. I rather enjoyed each effort, eagerly snapping them up and losing myself in the histrionics employed by Styx -- even if their music was falling out of favor among a devoted part of their fan base in the process.

So against that backdrop, I confess to being positively intrigued that DeYoung would dive headlong into developing his own stage musical. To me, it seemed like a natural progression for a man who had been less a closet tuner junkie than a bona fide musical aficionado.

When I learned that DeYoung had written a complete book and score for The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, I knew I had to see this show, which is currently being presented by Chicago’s Bailiwick Theatre and helmed by its artistic director David Zak. Unfortunately, the possibilities his Styx concept albums flirted with were much more compelling, and artistically, more daring and innovative.

While I have no doubt that Hunchback is a labor of love (and it’s certainly a family affair as his wife and children all share program credits), it’s almost as if DeYoung has spent a little too much time studying the musical techniques offered by Andrew Lloyd Webber or the team that gave the world Les Miserables. The world of musical theatre has long since moved on.

DeYoung’s work is hardly helped by Zak’s direction, which seems bent on reliving those bombastic 80s musical halycon days, even though it’s been nearly a generation since they’ve been in vogue.

Case in point is the “What hath God overwrought” performance by Jeremy Rill’s Frollo, the French priest who takes in the grossly deformed Quasimodo (George Andrew Wolff) at an early age, only to ultimately spar with him as an adult over the affections of gypsy girl Esmerelda (Dana Tretta). In perhaps the most egregious display of overacting I’ve witnessed from a lead player this year, shrill Rill’s handwringing turn not only unintentionally flirts with pure camp -- he goes dangerously over the top.

And that’s a shame, given the genuine heartfelt performances offered by both Wolff and Tretta, who help ground the story, giving it the kind of emotional depth DeYoung is clearly seeking.

Could this Hunchback someday prove to be the bell ringer DeYoung envisioned? The answer is a qualified yes. But this incarnation takes its toll.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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