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CCM’s Latest Show is Not Your Child’s “Hunchback”

Review by Sheldon Polonsky of The Hunchback of Notre Dame: CCM Musical Theatre

Although based off the Disney musical with music and lyrics by Alan Mencken and Stephen Schwartz, the UC College Conservatory of Music‘s current production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame comes with a parental advisory for its mature themes and situations—as well it should, as this version brings the musical closer to Victor Hugo’s original gothic vision of temptation and passion, the monstrousness of humanity and the humanity of monsters. As usual, CCM presents this epic tapestry with professionalism, intensity and a lot of heart.

Hunchback is framed as a legend narrated by storytellers, led by Clopin Trouillefou (Kevin Chlapecka), who plays the leader of the gypsies. The story should be familiar to most–the spiritually tortured archdeacon of Notre Dame, Claude Frollo (Bryce Baxter) adopts the misshapen and grotesque infant of his brother, whose death he blames on the gypsies who seduced him. He raises the boy, Quasimodo (Alex Stone) as the bell-ringer in the hidden recesses of the cathedral, whose only friends are the statues and gargoyles with whom he converses in his imagination. Enter the gypsy woman Esmeralda (Jenny Mollet) who captivates both Frollo and Quasimodo as well as the handsome captain of the guard, Phoebus (Frankie Thams). Frollo’s tormented lust leads him to acts of malice and degradation while elevating Quasimodo to find his inner strength and self-worth.

Hunchback‘s cast demonstrates the incredible range and talent we expect from CCM‘s exceptional musical theatre students. Chlapecka and Thams are athletic and engaging as Clopin and Phoebus. Baxter’s intense but restrained portrayal of Frollo imbues him with a malice far more terrifying than any Disneyesque villainy could. Mollet is transcendent as Esmeralda, especially during her heartfelt ballad, “God Help the Outcasts”. But it is Alex Stone as Quasimodo who absolutely owns this production. His clear tenor voice reverberates flawlessly in the Corbett auditorium and he draws in the audience with an absolutely authentic and riveting performance,

Mencken’s and Schwartz’s score is not likely going to set any toes tapping, nor be on anyone’s top 10 favorite cast album list. But the music is effective and immersive, especially so given the huge chorus of singers both on stage and on the balcony in the wings, who manage not to be drowned out even among the soaring orchestral background, ably directed by Stephen Goers. Choreographer Katie Johannigman punctuates the music with eye-catching dance numbers, ranging from energetic and muscular to balletic and interpretive.

Director Aubrey Berg coordinates this sprawling tableau like a massive jigsaw puzzle, using every inch of the Corbett’s large stage–vertically as well as horizontally. He is aided by an ingenious set designed by Lindsey Purvis, made up of endlessly rearrangeable modules filled with platforms, ladders and layers, covering a backdrop dominated by realistic bells and capable of projecting the Notre Dame’s stained glass or other effects, supplemented by powerful lighting and sound effects (Oliver Tidwell-Littleton and Matthew Tibbs). Costumes, designed by Dean Mogul, are colorful but not cartoonish, a difference highlighted by a nod to the more Disneyesque versions in a mesmerizing dance number. The gargoyles and statues were more representational and symbolic–perhaps appropriate for the more mature tone of this show, although I found them somewhat flat and unappealing, except for a brief but effective technical effect beginning the second act.

The transformation of this show from an animated children’s movie to an adult theatre experience works most of the time, if not always–I found the ending to be a little unfocused and dissatisfying. Nevertheless, overall, the experience was powerful and uplifting, and certainly presented magnificently by CCM‘s cast and crew. As long as you don’t mind if your evening is more Les Mis than Les Dis, you can’t go wrong spending it with CCM‘s Hunchback.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is presented at CCM‘s Corbett Auditorium through Sunday March 10th. Tickets can be purchased through their box office or their website, https://CCM.uc.edu/boxoffice/mainstage.html.