Perhaps The Hunchback of Notre Dame was never meant to be a Disney movie. Although the cartoon received a good reception when it came out in 1996, with box office returns comparable to studio darlings Pocahontas and Beauty and the Beast, the content didn’t square with the Mickey Mouse brand or the audience. For little ones, the story was too dark. For mainstream audiences the movie had too much religious content, some of it quite unflattering toward the clergy. And for lovers of the book, the plot had been altered too drastically.
Perhaps instead, The Hunchback was always supposed an epic musical along the lines of the other Victor Hugo smash adaptation Les Miserables, complete with ethnic prejudice and persecution, a disillusioned soldier, the ultimate underdog protagonist, a villain struggling with intense moral quandaries, and doomed love on the order of Shakespeare.
That story, along with a lush orchestral score and immediately hummable songs, is captured beautifully in Capital City Theatre’s enormous production of Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Running for only three performances in Overture’s Capitol Theater, its scale alone — with a 36-member chorus, a 16-person principal ensemble, 5 leads and a 23-member orchestra onstage—is enough to recommend the show. In an era of smaller and smaller pit orchestras for big Broadway shows, it’s a luxury to hear the exquisite score of Hunchback supported by a substantial, talented group of musicians, led confidently by Andrew Abrams. And there are distinct moments in the production when the chorus, filling the entire width of the stage on risers in the back, unleashes a bold but intricate tapestry sound that can only come from critical mass.
Fortunately, the production delivers much more than quantity. The real storytelling occurs downstage with the ensemble and main characters, who add a great deal of kinetic energy and theatricality to the staged concert. Under the direction of Brian Cowing, the local players portray townspeople in 15th century Paris, as well as soldiers, a band of gypsies, the worshippers at Notre Dame Cathedral, and an assortment of saints, gargoyles, and other stone statuary that attend Quasimodo in the bell tower. Wearing a base costume of contemporary clothes in red, magenta, purple, gray and black, the actors indicate changes in roles with the addition of a colorful scarf, a mob cap, coat or shawl. (Creative, less-is-more costume design by Karen Brown-Larimore.)
Flanked by two elevated wooden platforms, the stage’s playing space is just large enough to accommodate the many crowd scenes and dance sequences that keep the show moving. The rest of the set is created through the placement of a dozen or so wooden chairs, which represent everything from the church’s pews, to the slanted roofs of Paris buildings, to the bell tower railing where Quasimodo and Esmeralda look down on the city. The chairs also give the viewers a variation in stage pictures, as actors scamper up and down, playing on different levels.
This approach works well for the most part — audiences are smart enough to imagine the specific settings and characters with the physical suggestion of a town square, a rowdy brothel, or a cathedral. But by the second act, the arrangement and rearrangement of chairs routine wore a bit thin, as did seeing huge clusters of performers with few places to go. And the only group of characters that was disappointingly indistinct was the stone statues, who could have used more specific physical indicators. These are small quibbles, however, in a show that was even more dazzling dramatically and musically than it was visually.
The powerhouse acting and singing came, predictably from the out-of-town leads, who were extraordinary. Definite stand-outs on the stage, they carried the majority of the story’s narrative and the show’s emotional journey, while exhibiting tremendous vocal talent.
As the frustrated and bitter cleric Frollo, Ryan Knowles entranced the audience from the first note he sang. His impossibly rich, expressive bass cut through the packed Capitol Theater and left no doubt that he was the villain of the piece. Similar to Les Mis’s Inspector Javert, he was the ultimate authority, the enforcer, and the personified juxtaposition of God’s love and man’s lust; Christianity’s acceptance and man’s prejudice; Christ’s forgiveness and man’s vindictiveness. Overcome by base desires and prone to cruelty when dealing with his deformed nephew Quasimodo, Knowles’s Frollo was irredeemable, but incredibly entertaining to watch.
Frollo’s long, angular and dark frame was starkly contrasted by Julian Decker’s round, warm and twisted physicality as the famous bell ringer. His third time playing the role of Quasimodo, Decker not only shows off a clear, noble voice of the mistreated “monster,” his physicality is extraordinary. Without the help of padding, prosthetics or special make-up, Decker transforms his body and stretches his face into man whose bent knees are joined when he ambles across the stage. His fingers fidget unnaturally, hands kept near his misshapen face, and he curves and bends into a question mark, moving about the stage and scrambling up stairs like a wild animal. The soul of the show, Quasimodo’s love for a beautiful gypsy, his powerful urge to do the right thing, and his pain at being regarded as an ugly troll do more than push sympathy buttons, they tear at the hearts of the audience. On opening night, Decker’s exquisite performance was rewarded with extended applause after his moving ballad, “Made of Stone.”
And as the spirited gypsy Esmeralda, Syndee Winters was enchanting. Dressed in a white, gauzy blouse and brightly embellished purple skirt, she enters performing a provocative dance for gathered townspeople in celebration of the Feast of Fools. Brandishing her tambourine like a bullfighter’s red flag and hypnotizing lookers-on with her spins and lunges, Winters presents a woman who is as independent as she is alluring. With a breathy, strong soprano she moves from Quasimodo’s compassionate friend to a knife wielding defender of her gypsy brethren in an instant. In “Someday,” her heartbreaking duet with the chiseled but war weary soldier Phoebus (an outstanding Travis Leland), Winters sings of a future world where “change will come,” “life will be fairer,” and “dreams will all be real.” As she lifts up her musical pleas for justice and equality, it’s hard not to be mesmerized by her eyes, that seem to see the vision so clearly.
In addition to so many remarkable performances, Hunchback benefits from the message of the show, which resonates deeply right now. A large part of the story focuses on racial and ethnic prejudice, as well as the dominant culture ostracizing anyone who is “other.” For instance, as Frollo rages against those who are different, whipping the townspeople into a frenzy of hatred, he also preaches the moral superiority of those who share his skin color and religion. When he orders his men to set fire to buildings that may be harboring fugitive gypsies, it is impossible not to see similarities to the current immigration debate.
Kudos to the entire company for a revelatory evening of theater.