Review by Jack Crumley of The Hunchback of Notre Dame: The Carnegie
The new year means itâ€™s time for The Carnegieâ€™s annual family-friendly show, and this yearâ€™s production will really ring your bell. Disneyâ€™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. Heâ€™s kept there by Dom Frollo, a zealot who makes Quasimodo believe heâ€™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 Frolloâ€™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 filmâ€™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 showâ€™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 Csernikâ€™s work creates an emotionally stirring production.
Telling the story on that set is an excellent cast. Kyle Taylor plays Quasimodo, a character whoâ€™s really living two lives–one in public where heâ€™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 Covedaleâ€™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 wasnâ€™t a single sour note from Taylor throughout the entire opening night production, but he truly shines in the Act I song â€œHeavenâ€™s Light.â€
Also bringing a beautiful voice to the Carnegie stage is Ria Villaver Collins as Esmeralda. Collinsâ€™ Esmeralda is at times an energetic dancer, a compassionate sympathizer, and a fierce defender. Sheâ€™s the center of attention any time sheâ€™s on stage, and sheâ€™s a joy to watch. Like Taylor, Collinsâ€™ singing skills are outstanding, especially as she sings for heavenly intervention in the lullaby-like â€œGod Help the Outcasts.â€ Sheâ€™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. Itâ€™s a subtle effect that doesnâ€™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 wouldâ€™ve liked to have seen more overt menace from him, but Frolloâ€™s character is so internally conflicted that he almost has to keep it all inside. Itâ€™s no easy task playing such a flawed human as â€œThe Bad Guy.â€ Frollo believes himself to be righteous, but he canâ€™t deny his attraction to Esmeralda. It twists him inside, and Shermanâ€™s chemistry with Collins is intense.
Itâ€™s interesting to watch this story through a lens thatâ€™s more aware of â€œtoxic masculinityâ€ on a societal level. Esmeralda is purely in town to dance and be with her people. Frollo is attracted to her, and canâ€™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 doesnâ€™t take it to the life-threatening degree that Frollo does.
Jackson Hurtâ€™s Captain Phoebus finds himself a part of this emotional mix. Even though heâ€™s the gallant hero (which Hurt plays well with a necessary bit of tenderness and rebelliousness), heâ€™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 theyâ€™re all singing those big, Menken choruses, their voices fill the space. The bulk of them play the gargoyles and statues that Quasimodo â€œtalksâ€ with. In the movie, itâ€™s three colorful gargoyles who get the most attention, but having them as a larger group adds to how tragically disturbed Quasimodo is. Itâ€™s a new layer to the story that I donâ€™t think gets the same attention when itâ€™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 thereâ€™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. Itâ€™s a family-friendly adaptation of a Disney film, though words like â€œhellâ€ are said a few times (â€œheavenâ€ is said and sung a few times as well). Whether youâ€™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.