Great Lakes stages polished, stirringly rendered ‘Hunchback’
By Bob Abelman
There’s something so 1980s about the musical “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” currently in production by Great Lakes Theater.
Set in Paris during the Late Middle Ages and based on Victor Hugo’s gothic 1831 novel, this play tells the epic tale of a beautiful gypsy (Keri Rene Fuller as Esmeralda), who captures the hearts of the physically deformed bell-ringer of Notre Dame (Corey Mach as Quasimodo), the morally misshapen archdeacon of Notre Dame (Tom Ford as Dom Claude Frollo), and the remorseful Captain of the Cathedral Guard (Jon Loya as Phoebus de Martin).
The musical was adapted for the stage by Peter Parnell with an augmented score from the 1996 animated Disney movie written by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz. Of the show’s many songs, the lyrics from “God Help the Outcasts” best captures what lies at the heart of Hugo’s dark portrait of Man’s inhumanity to Man that even the hopeless romantics at Disney could not squelch: “God help the outcasts/Hungry from birth/Show them the mercy/They don’t find on earth.”
Although a new musical – it made its debut as a co-production of San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse in 2014 and New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse in 2015 – “Hunchback’s” defining features make it very much a throwback to the heyday of 1980’s mega-musicals like “Les Misérables” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”
“Hunchback” shares the same furrowed-brow earnestness, overwrought vibrato and weighty pathos.
There are the same hallmark leitmotifs – those hummable melodies that represent key elements of the storytelling that keep repeating throughout the musical.
And though performers do not sing every word in this musical, they sing most of them, which gives this show the austere grandeur of an opera that serves to dramatically punctuate all of the above.
In short, “Hunchback” breathes the same portentous air as these long-running Broadway titans, though it never made it to Broadway.
One reason is the music. While “Les Misérables” and “The Phantom of the Opera” have their share of gut-wrenching songs that conclude with a spectacularly prolonged high-note, they appear too early and too often in “Hunchback.” Characters are left with nowhere to go, emotionally, from that point on and audiences are left anesthetized rather than exhilarated for much of the production.
Director Victoria Bussert does everything in her power to compensate.
She has cast the astonishingly gifted Fuller, Mach, Ford and Loya in the featured roles, who find the deep meaning that resides in every lyric and sing every note in their signature songs “God Help The Outcasts,” “Out There,” “Hellfire” and “Someday,” respectively, as if it was their last on earth.
The ruggedly handsome Mach’s first moments on stage find him standing straight and shirtless before slowly taking on the facial deformity and painful posture that define the title character. This seamless transformation from man to monster resonates each time townsfolk respond to Quasimodo’s physical appearance without seeing what lies within. And we are reminded of this when his slurred and tortured speaking voice, which he cannot hear due to deafness from the bells, gives way to pure and unrestricted tones while singing.
Fuller’s soaring angelic voice, established upon her entrance during “Rhythm of the Tambourine,” has the same dramatic effect in the face of the archdeacon’s accusations of thievery, witchcraft and whoring.
These performers are surrounded with an equally remarkable ensemble. Chief among them is Alex Syiek as Clopin Trouillefou, the head gypsy who is tasked with delivering the play’s excessive, energy-sapping narration but is so interesting while doing so that he nearly steals the show. Another scene-stealer is the petite Michelle Pauker, whose stunning production-ending soprano solo leaves a lasting final impression.
Throughout this production, the theater is flooded with a wall of music that includes the symphonic richness of music director Joel Mercier’s nine-piece orchestra, the harmonies provided by the sizable on-stage choir from Baldwin Wallace University’s Choral Studies Program, and the subtle reverberating echo of clerical chants courtesy of sound designer David Gotwald.
All this takes place on scenic designer Jeff Herrmann’s impressive set, which is dominated by a suspended 20-foot-tall bell that stands between two-tier French Gothic towers that house the choir’s pew. The stage is beautifully lit by Mary Jo Dondlinger, who enhances every dramatic moment. The actors are in colorful period costuming designed by Martha Bromelmeier.
This production comes fully formed and polished after an initial opening at Great Lakes Theater’s sister venue, the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. But for all its admirable qualities, it never quite takes your breath away like its 1980s counterparts. But it is not for want of trying.
“Hunchback of Notre Dame”
WHERE: The Hanna Theatre, 14th St. and Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Nov. 4
TICKETS & INFO: $13-$80, call 216-241-6000 or visit greatlakestheater.org
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Oct. 2, 2017.
Lead image: Members of the ensemble of “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Courtesy of Idaho Shakespeare Festival