Review: May The Bells Ring For The Hunchback of Notre Dame!

Dan'yelle Williamson stars as Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame - Photo Credit Tracy Martin

Don’t miss The Hunchback of Notre Dame at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre through June 24, 2018. Get tickets and more info here. The 5th Avenue is presenting an entirely new show while returning to the darkness of the original text. This is an excellent opportunity to see the talent of the 5th Avenue Theatre at its finest.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a classic novel of looking beyond the physical to find the beauty inside of someone else. It is a romantic/gothic tale, originally written as social commentary as much as entertainment. With the huge success of another of a Hugo novel’s transformation to the musical stage (Les Miserables), Disney took it upon themselves to write a fully animated musical film based on the dark tale. Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre has joined to transfer this classic to the stage bringing a new, darker life to the story that is less “Disney” and more accurate to the original tale.

The story takes place in 1482 in and around the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris. The Arch-Deacon of Notre Dame is Claude Frollo (reluctantly) takes in the child of his brother and his Gypsy wife as penance for his prejudice against the Gypsy people. The child is a horribly deformed boy and Frollo gives him tormenting name Quasimodo. Quasimodo grows up in the bell tower with only the gargoyles as friends. When the Gypsies come into town for ‘the Feast of Fools’, Quasimodo decides to venture out into the crowds, where everyone thinks he is hideously disguised as part of the revelries. He spies a beautiful Gypsy woman named Esmeralda. When the crowd recognizes Quasimodo they mercilessly torment him. Esmeralda steps forward and makes them stop. Because of her beauty and kindness, Quasimodo becomes enamored with her. Unfortunately, Quasimodo’s master Frollo also falls for the young Gypsy, as does the captain of the guard, Captain Phoebus de Martin. When Esmeralda spurns Frollo’s affections, he has her arrested for witchcraft and sentences her to be burned at the stake. Quasimodo defies his master with bold actions of rescuing the beautiful girl, and placing her within the Cathedral under the laws of Sanctuary. Frollo revokes the protective right and attempts to carry out the sentence of death. Quasimodo must decide for himself what is more important, being known as a monster or becoming a man.

The Ensemble of “Hunchback” all shine in excellent ways. On either side, and above the magnificent set, is the Pacific Lutheran University Choral Union (Richard Nance, Conductor). The choir, dressed like monks, adds a strong presence and vocals to the production, rounding out the excellent ensemble. The handful of gargoyles (apart from the three in the animated film) all adds something extra to the way they communicate and interact with Quasimodo. They act as part of Quasimodo’s conscience, as well as his train of thought. They bring to the audience’s attention the hunchback’s loneliness as well as his need for interaction.

Dane Stokinger as Clopin and the cast of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (Photo Credit Tracy Martin)

Dane Stokinger as Clopin and the cast of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (Photo Credit Tracy Martin)

Captain Phoebus (played by Brandon O’Neill) does very well as the love interest for Esmeralda. His voice is strong being a well-seasoned veteran of the 5th Avenue, and he knows how to project and play to the audience. He adds levity with the song “Rest and Recreation” as well as the touching duet, “Someday”. The priest Frollo (played by Allen Fitzpatrick) has a good voice. It’s deeper sound richly rings through the pious prayers, or the confessional song “Hellfire” where he faces his lustful feelings for Esmeralda. The character is played very staunch, never relaxing and rather stiff. Frollo defends his actions like every Republican politician that has ever been caught in a bathroom vice sting operation; he hides behind his piety, twisting doctrinal meanings to suit his own hypocritical purposes. In a way, it’s very timely for what is happening in today’s society.

The beautiful Gypsy girl Esmeralda is played by Dan’yelle Williamson. She makes her 5th Avenue debut with Hunchback, and we hope that she becomes a regular sight on their stage. Ms. Williamson embraces the role. Esmeralda moves gracefully around the stage all the while standing up for her place in the world. Her voice is clear and strong and when she sings the poignantly beautiful song, “God Help the Outcasts”, she cast a spell so strong; the audience became enslaved by her talents. We immediately understood why seeing her bewitched the main characters.

The lead goes to two people playing different parts of Quasimodo. E.J. Cardona plays the gargoyle that is alternatively Quasimodo’s voice and conscience. He provides a voice so that the audience can understand what Quasimodo is signing*, and also provides the powerful singing voice to express Quasimodo’s thoughts and emotions. Mr. Cardona has a powerful musical instrument in his control and knows how to use it. His voice is strong. It is clear and easily reaches the rafters of the theatre bringing the beautiful sounds to the back of the house. When he belts out the Hunchback’s anthem, ‘Out There’, the song absolutely soars through the theatre.

Joshua Castille as Quasimodo and E.J. Cardona as the Voice of Quasimodo in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (Photo Credit Tracy Martin)

Joshua Castille as Quasimodo and E.J. Cardona as the Voice of Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (Photo Credit Tracy Martin)

The main lead is Joshua Castille. Mr. Castille identifies himself as a ‘Deaf performance artist’. While he does speak, the majority of his performance is done through ASL. He embraces Quasimodo giving the character the extra depth because of the character’s own deafness. Mr. Castille easily transforms into the character, capturing our hearts and having the audience immediately in the palm of his hand. His movements are graceful, even with the prosthetic hump as well as the character’s other physical ailments, giving the audience a perfect performance.

The production is unique in many ways. The most obvious is that ASL (American Sign Language) is used throughout not only Quasimodo, but also from the other actors, especially the gargoyles. It only makes sense as Quasimodo would be deaf from the loud ringing of the giant bells and would be the main source of communication for this poor creature. All the actors sign with great agility allowing the grace and beauty of the language to easily flow through, adding a new dimension to this classic story.

The story is less “Disney” (originally criticized as being one of the ‘darker themed’ Disney animated films) and much more accurate to the original novel. This potentially makes it less of a G-rating, than a PG-minus rating (I’m guessing 9-years and up) due to the word usage of ‘whore’, and that the hanging/burning-at-the-stake scenes may be a little intense for younger audience members. Either way, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an incredible night of theatre.

The show is based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel. The musical was originally a 1996 full-length, Disney animated feature, with lyrics written by Stephen Schwartz and music by Alan Menken. The Berlin branch of the Disney Theatrical adapted it for the stage in 1999 with a book written by James Lapine. In 2014 the U.S. version opened with a book now by Peter Parnell and additional songs written by Schwartz/Menken. There has not been a scheduling, at this time, of a Broadway opening.

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About Eric Andrews-Katz

Eric Andrews-Katz has short stories included in over 10 anthologies. He is the author of the Agent Buck 98 Series (“The Jesus Injection” and “Balls & Chain”), and the author of the Greek myth series beginning with the novel TARTARUS. He has conducted celebrity interviews with some of the biggest and best names on Broadway, Hollywood and in literature. He can be found at: http://www.EricAndrewsKatz.com

One thought on “Review: May The Bells Ring For The Hunchback of Notre Dame!

  1. Nancy Dow

    Great review Eric. You did justice reviewing the first musical to make me cry out loud during the curtain call.

    Reply

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