It's nearly impossible this week to not have heard of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, France. Notre Dame's historical significance, particularly to the people of Paris, in the last week been made abundantly clear, both by the horror of a fire at the historic Gothic landmark, and the public's subsequent response to it. Neither Victor Hugo nor Walt Disney are known as historians, nor is Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia a classroom. But you should enter the theater with a mind prepared for powerful historical storytelling when you go, and you should go.
Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken, though well known for fluffy animated musicals, are fully capable of creating a moving, meaningful sound-story, (eg, Prince Of Egypt), (referenced here partially because it's temporally appropriate, as it's Passover tonight, and partially because it's a particular favorite of mine) without being diluted by Disney's inevitable trivializations. In the stage version of HUNCHBACK, some teeth are put back into Hugo's story.
My one critique of Toby's is that they often make 'safe' choices for their productions, which is completely understandable if a little disappointing. HUNCHBACK does not feel safe. It feels edgy, relevant and important.
Originally titled Notre Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo's aim in writing his novel was to reignite a love of Gothic architecture in the hearts of Parisians, as the "old styles" had fallen from favor. Publishing in 1831 a tale set 400 years previously, it's curious to note that in the nearly six hundred intervening years, there is much that is unchanged regarding social injustice, racial persecution and sexual abuse by religious leaders.
There are improvements in book writer Peter Parnell's staged show to both the Disney movie and Hugo's book: a believable backstory linking the vaunted Claude Frollo to an unfortunate malformed child and a medical excuse for said child's deformities, neither of which were regarded as important by Hugo, and were nearly arbitray in the movie. Frollo, altered in the movie to be a judge, returns to his place in the Catholic power structure. Esmerelda's goat, comic relief in the movie and important as a plot point in the book, is entirely absent.
There's a lot to like about Toby's to begin with: parking is easy, atmosphere is friendly, buffet is generous. Romaine lettuce has now returned to the salad bar. Tonight's "show special" cocktail, The Hellfire, is a chocolate milkshake that's less stickily sweet than others of its ilk, purportedly spiked with Fireball in its 'adult' iteration. I quite like it, but stop at one, in case the alcohol I can't taste should sabotage my note-taking and driving abilities.
Directors Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick create a beautiful experience with narration shifting from voice to voice, sometimes within the same sentence. Actors transition from ensemble members to specific characters onstage, made possible by the clever machinations of Costume Designer Janine Sunday, whose pared-down approach puts the focus on the performers rather than what they are wearing. Mark Minnick's usual flair for dance choreography steps aside in service to many wonderful vertical and distance movement sequences. The whole production, while supported by flawlessly executed tech such as Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin's rose windows and sunrise, relies much more on human-centric theatrical artifices, which are as effective and lovely as device-driven effects.
New to Toby's are lead actors Sam Kobren as Quasimodo and Jessica Bennett as Esmeralda, plus three ensemble cast members. Kobren's powerful, emotive voice delivers Quasimodo's inner monologues with heartwrenching sympathy. Bennett's vocals are solid, but her dance and physicality are stellar. I look forward to seeing both of them again. Returning to Toby's for this show are many actors whom we've seen recently as leads, blending perfectly into supporting roles. Longtime favorite Russell Sunday reveals such command and depth as a vocalist I very nearly find myself rooting for Dom Frollo, and DeCarlo Raspberry as Clopin looks athletic and crisp, and conveys opportunism and shiftiness without sacrificing likeability.
Musical Director Ross Scott Rawlings, whose work I am accustomed to praising, really outdoes himself this time. The ensemble numbers sound like a choir in a cathedral, with supporting work from Sound Designer Corey Brown. The sound is crisp and clear, and, despite onstage removal or donning of specialty costume pieces, the body mics have no issues. Under the command of Musical Director /Conductor Ross Scott Rawlings, the live mini-orchestra fills the building with music that serves as underscore, counterpoint and dramatic accent. Tony Neenan and Heidi Brown on brass are particularly majestic in certain sequences, while Jennifer Houck cries for the characters on violin in others.
The entire production is wonderful, beginning to end, and the few comedic moments are more precious for their rarity. The only thing I can possibly fault in the whole evening is that the coffee isn't quite as good as usual.
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME plays at Toby's through May 19th, 2019, and will be followed by GREASE, opening May 22.
Toby's Dinner Theatre is in Columbia, Maryland, easily accessed from 29 Southbound, with plenty of free parking all around the building.
Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia
5900 Symphony Woods Road
Columbia, MD 21044
For additional information including pricing, buffet menu and directions, visit www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.
For tickets, phone the box office at 410-730-8311, 301-596-6161 or 1-800-88-TOBYS 10 am - 9 pm. Doors open at 6pm Tuesday through Saturday evenings, with dinner from 6:30-7:20 for an 8 pm showtime. Wednesday and Sunday Matinees, the buffet is 10:30-11:50 am for a 12:30 pm show. Sunday evening supper is at 5:30 pm, with a 7 pm showtime. The show runs about one and a half hours, including a 20 minute intermission.