Skip to content

Carnegie’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” Takes the Disney Version to New Heights

Review by Doug Iden of The Hunchback of Notre Dame: The Carnegie Theatre

What would it be like to be isolated, ostracized and ridiculed?  This is the primary theme of the Hunchback of Notre Dame which is currently playing at The Carnegie.  The show is partly based upon the Victor Hugo masterpiece and partly on the Disney animated version. However, the scope of this version lies between the brutally realistic Hugo novel and the somewhat sanitized and romanticized Disney treatment. Using the songs written by Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, with many newly written tunes by the duo, this rendition is much more dramatic, darker and operatic than the animated film.  

We are introduced to the lonely, mostly deaf Quasimodo who functions as the bell ringer in the tower and is considered a “monster” by Archdeacon Frollo (Mike Sherman).  Quasimodo longs for friendship and companionship as he sings his theme “Out There”. He imagines that the gargoyles of the gothic flying buttresses and the various statues are friends with whom he communicates.  The “gargoyles” are played by the Youth Ensemble of Ruby Brooks, Ava Kroener, Ben Meyer, Robert Wilke and Athena Updike dressed in costumes with horns and wings with a Teen Ensemble acting as the statues. Both the gargoyles and statues act as a Greek Chorus which sometimes talks with Quasimodo, speaks for him or commentates on the action.  

Kyle Taylor inhabits Quasimodo as a fearful but poignant outcast who is cowered by Frollo but daydreams of attending the Feast of Fools.  The crowd turns on the “monster” but Quasimodo is rescued by a gypsy dancer named Esmeralda (Ria Villaver Collins). Esmeralda is the only person who has shown compassion towards Quasimodo and the hunchback is immediately smitten.  Their bond is heard in Esmeralda’s theme song “God Help the Outcasts,” a heart wrenching plea for acceptance sung passionately by Collins. Frollo also becomes enchanted with Esmeralda despite his vow of chastity. Sherman is physically intimidating as Frollo but does not convincingly exude the pious but narrowminded evil of the character.  Skyler McNeely, as Clopin the Gypsy King, serves as a narrator, a comic relief and a host of the gypsy revelries with an excellent voice.

A newly appointed captain of the guard for the cathedral (Captain Phoebus played by Jackson Hurt) also becomes smitten with Esmeralda which leads to a love quartet and ultimately to the dramatic ending.  

This show is a musical extravaganza using pre-recorded music.  There is a large cast with a chorus seated in the balcony with almost continuous music.  The voices, overall, are excellent, led by Taylor, Sherman, Collins and Hurt, but capably augmented by other cast members, the various ensembles and the chorus.  The song “The Bells of Notre Dame” (from the film) sets the tone with a minor-key, dramatic rendering of the story, with a leitmotif occurring throughout. Quasimodo’s “Out There” is exuberant and heartfelt while Captain Phoebus’ theme “Rest and Recreation” displays his love of life.  Hurt has a good voice and is effective as the eventual love interest of Esmeralda. Other highlights are “Top of the World” where Quasimodo describes his view of Paris from the tower, “The Tavern Song” which shows the gypsy society, “In the Place of Miracles” where the gypsies describe their hopes for the future and the poignant “Someday” where Quasimodo and Esmeralda dream of a better life.  

The set is also a marvel (on a relatively small stage) designed by Theron Wineinger.  Constructed entirely of wood, the set is a series of stairs and platforms representing the upper tower with bells in the background and actors walking around the moveable set.  The effect is the creation of many different scenes on a static stage. The set almost becomes a character.

Lighting (Larry Csernik) also adds to the mood of the set with a combination of a “noir” feeling, blood-red emotions and an interesting effect with the light from the stained-glass windows superimposed onto the wooden structure.  

Credit also goes to Jim Stump who has designed a tremendous variety of costumes ranging from the gargoyles and statues, period pieces, very colorful gypsy outfits, Quasimodo’s hunchback. monk’s robes and Frollo’s archdeacon garb.

The director and choreographer Kurt Domoney has done a yeoman’s job of coordinating this large cast and chorus including adults, teens and youngsters.   Actors moved seamlessly throughout the show while dancing, singing, acting and constantly maneuvering the set. Two gypsy dance scenes are exuberant and fun, highlighted by the dancing of Collins.

The show is not what I expected.  I thought this would be a “Disneyfied” romance from the film (especially since this the family friendly Carnegie show).  I was pleased and impressed by this version which is much more powerful, meatier and more adult while still maintaining the charm of the film.  The singing alone is worth the price of admission.So, don’t Quasi-consider going to this production.  This show is for all ages. The production runs through January 27.  The next show at The Carnegie is the exuberant celebration of big band music with Swing.