Review by Jack Crumley of The Hunchback of Notre Dame: The Carnegie
The new year means it’s time for The Carnegie’s annual family-friendly show, and this year’s production will really ring your bell. Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame hit movie theatres in 1996, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise with music by Alan Menken. It adapts the original novel by Victor Hugo, telling the story of Quasimodo, a deformed bell-ringer who lives the Notre Dame cathedral in 15th century France. He’s kept there by Dom Frollo, a zealot who makes Quasimodo believe he’s inferior and inherently corrupt. Both men are infatuated with Esmeralda, a traveling gypsy. Also in the mix is Captain Phoebus, assigned to cathedral security after serving in the French army. He and Esmeralda are falling in love, but Frollo’s jealousy and religious mania lead to her arrest and death sentence. Quasimodo saves her and takes revenge on his abusive master, but at a high price.
In the years that followed the film’s debut, the story was adapted for the stage in Germany, and it ultimately led to a licensable work in the US. This 2019 production at the Carnegie is directed and choreographed by Kurt Domoney with music direction by Xan Jeffery. This show is also made possible by a special set sponsorship by Kroener, Hale & Penick Law Firm.
The set is stunning. All-wood beams create the rafters and staircases in the bell tower of Notre Dame. The stairs are also on wheels and are frequently moved and rotated during musical performances for a great dramatic effect. The show’s lighting helps set various moods, from a beautiful projection of a stained glass window, to a somber, purple lighting for more serious moments. Scenic Designer Theron Wineinger and Lighting Designer Larry Csernik’s work creates an emotionally stirring production.
Telling the story on that set is an excellent cast. Kyle Taylor plays Quasimodo, a character who’s really living two lives–one in public where he’s mocked and feared by people over his physical handicaps, the other in private where he can sing of his passions and fears to a variety of gargoyles and statues he lives with on the roof of the church. Taylor seamlessly transitions between these two modes, and his voice resonates through the theatre as he emotes some very challenging musical numbers. I most recently saw Taylor in Covedale’s The Wizard of Oz, where, as the Emerald City doorman and Oz himself, his physicality was on full display. In this show, too, Taylor carries himself in different ways, depending on whether or not any other characters can see him. Also, there wasn’t a single sour note from Taylor throughout the entire opening night production, but he truly shines in the Act I song “Heaven’s Light.”
Also bringing a beautiful voice to the Carnegie stage is Ria Villaver Collins as Esmeralda. Collins’ Esmeralda is at times an energetic dancer, a compassionate sympathizer, and a fierce defender. She’s the center of attention any time she’s on stage, and she’s a joy to watch. Like Taylor, Collins’ singing skills are outstanding, especially as she sings for heavenly intervention in the lullaby-like “God Help the Outcasts.” She’s also a graceful dancer, with her debut in the show an extended tambourine dance number. At one point, it becomes a slow motion performance and Collins swaps her colorful scarves for rigid fabric to give the illusion that time has slowed. It’s a subtle effect that doesn’t last long, but I found it very effective.
Playing the villainous Frollo is Mike Sherman. Like his turn last year as Jud Fry in Oklahoma! at the Covedale, Sherman never takes his character over-the-top. I would’ve liked to have seen more overt menace from him, but Frollo’s character is so internally conflicted that he almost has to keep it all inside. It’s no easy task playing such a flawed human as “The Bad Guy.” Frollo believes himself to be righteous, but he can’t deny his attraction to Esmeralda. It twists him inside, and Sherman’s chemistry with Collins is intense.
It’s interesting to watch this story through a lens that’s more aware of “toxic masculinity” on a societal level. Esmeralda is purely in town to dance and be with her people. Frollo is attracted to her, and can’t handle it, and makes his emotional failings her fault. Quasimodo, through his years of abuse and solitude, is similarly unequipped to handle even the slightest bit of kindness from Esmeralda. He thinks himself in love with her, but he doesn’t take it to the life-threatening degree that Frollo does.
Jackson Hurt’s Captain Phoebus finds himself a part of this emotional mix. Even though he’s the gallant hero (which Hurt plays well with a necessary bit of tenderness and rebelliousness), he’s almost a secondary character in the Quasimodo, Frollo, Esmeralda triangle. All the other characters are handled by the chorus, which is split between youth, teens, and adults. When they’re all singing those big, Menken choruses, their voices fill the space. The bulk of them play the gargoyles and statues that Quasimodo “talks” with. In the movie, it’s three colorful gargoyles who get the most attention, but having them as a larger group adds to how tragically disturbed Quasimodo is. It’s a new layer to the story that I don’t think gets the same attention when it’s the three from the movie. Backing up the already admirable chorus is a choir that takes up part of the balcony in the audience. The Young Professionals Choral Collective adds a richness to the production.
This show fully exceeded my expectations. The remarkable set combined with a strong cast, technical cues, special effects, and excellent vocals created a truly enjoyable experience. And even though there’s so much detail and thought put in to this production, it still requires a bit of theatrical imagination on the part of the audience during the climax, which I appreciate. It’s a family-friendly adaptation of a Disney film, though words like “hell” are said a few times (“heaven” is said and sung a few times as well). Whether you’re familiar with the 1996 film or not, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an excellent production.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame plays at the Carnegie Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through January 27. Tickets are available here.