BWW Review: THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME at STARRING BUFFALO
STARRING BUFFALO GLEAMS IN FIRST PRODUCTION
Youth, ingenuity, and courage can be held responsible for Buffalo's latest artistic endeavor, STARRING BUFFALO. This new Production Company has creatively brought the concert musical to the Queen City and in it's inaugural production of Alan Menken and Steven Schwartz's THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, they got off to a flying start.
Former Williamsville native Drew Fornarola serves as artistic director of the fledgling company, modeled after such successful concert musical companies as New York's ENCORES and L.A.'s REPRISE Series. Those companies perform mostly forgotten or rarely produced musicals. The ingenuity in Fornarola's mission comes with importing rising Broadway talents as principal artists, employing Buffalo's own best supporting players, and integrating multiple High School Choirs as the chorus. Over the 3 performance run, 4 different High Schools got to work along side a professional orchestra and seasoned professionals. Happily, the end product at this past Saturday's matinee was a sleek, top notch outing.
Rarely is one given the opportunity to hear a full orchestra accompany a Broadway musical. Even on the Great White Way, financial constraints sometimes reduce orchestrations to a bare bones 6-8 players, when still charging near $200 a ticket. Under the direction of Daniel Bassin, the orchestra assembled here in Buffalo played the lush and often complex score with aplomb, with perfectly tuned strings and some impressive brass playing. For the majority of the time, the balance between orchestra and the singers was spot on, despite a relatively few sound system glitches.
Two High School choirs sang the Saturday matinee-- Starpoint ( under the direction of Nicole Peets) and Tonawanda, directed by Amanda Urbaniak. Other performances included Williamsville East and Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts). The choirs were well prepared and along side the professional singers provided a robust sound.
Ben Fankhauser, seen in both the Broadway production and movie of NEWSIES, was the famed Quasimodo. The role fit his voice like a glove, and with his slight frame and a mere slump in posturing, he became the hunchback. Fankhauser has a clear tenor voice that soared when needed and his act II "Made of Stone" was especially memorable. Dan'yelle Williamson was the gypsy Esmeralda, oozing exotic sexiness. Having played the role before, she has a powerful voice that was equally matched by her sensitive portrayal.
Jonah Platt , seen most recently as Fiyero on Broadway in WICKED, has the swagger and good looks of a leading man, with a voice to match in the role of Phoebus. Devin Ilaw, direct from the Broadway revival of MISS SAIGON, was the sinister Clopin. Mr. Ilaw was engaging from the outset and led the "The Court of Miracles" number with intense conviction.
Buffalo native Keith Ersing joined the visiting artists as Frollo, the wicked caretaker of Quasimodo. Mr. Ersing turned in a polished performance and has the audience in his hand during the dark "Hellfire."
The large local ensemble of secondary roles included many of Buffalo's best, including Leah Berst, Charmagne Chi, Arianne Davidow, Matthew Iwanski-Jackson, Dudney Joseph, Katy Miner, Ben Michael Moran, and Raphael Santos. Each were given moments to shine, fleshing out the large cast of characters and employing strong vocals that fully complemented the production.
While THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME may seem an unusual vehicle for a first outing, it proved to be an excellent choice, given the large cast of singing characters. Menken's score is mostly sung through, which is a plus, given the massive forces gathered. Originally written as the Disney motion picture, this stage version with additional music first played in Germany and then debuted in the US at the La Jolla Playhouse. STARRING BUFFALO's end product was a highly polished musical feast for the ears.
Director Drew Fornarola staged the concert in the typical style, without costumes or scenery, using subtle light changes to accentuate the drama. The performers rolled music stands around effortlessly, and you soon forgot they were even there. The inherent strength of the singing actors created dramatic tension, while letting the musical score be the star. The theatre at Rockwell Hall on the campus of Buffalo State College was the perfect venue size for the company. When large orchestras attempt these concert performances, they often come across as stilted with a symphony using too many players, and classical singers and choruses that often lack that authentic Broadway sound.
STARRING BUFFALO has the formula down well from the outset, which only bodes well for future endeavors. In a community like Buffalo, where the subscription base to Shea's Buffalo Broadway Series is one of the largest in the country, we surely have lovers of Broadway music. One can hope that a new audience will soon also flock to enjoy this company's high caliber concert musical offerings.
For more information, contact starringbuffalo.org