BWW Review: THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME at Theatre Harrisburg
Sometimes there is a show that speaks directly to your heart in an unexpected way-that highlights elements of life, society, and human nature, making it impossible to ignore not only the good things like compassion and love but also the bad things like prejudice, hypocrisy, and hatred. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of those shows. Based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo, the show takes place in Paris in 1482, but it could just as easily be set in a city today. The musical, by Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz, and Peter Parnell takes these themes from the book and from the Disney movie and heightens them for the stage. Theatre Harrisburg's production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an experience that should not be missed, and you have the opportunity to catch it at the Whitaker Center now through November 24. In the words of director Travis Pierce, "The story of the Hunchback of Notre Dame is timeless. It questions 'What makes a monster, and what makes a man?'...we come back to that question again and again."
There are so many moments in this production that leave the audience breathless-it really is something you have to experience for yourself. First, there's the set, designed by Curtis Mittong, that comes alive when combined with the lighting design by Matthew Mitra. These two elements alone are enough to transport the audience to 1482 Paris. Add in the costume design by Paul Foltz, which is shown off beautifully during the choreography by Donna Lynch and fight choreography by Dan Burke, and this production looks not only authentic and realistic but also absolutely beautiful. It takes a huge crew to make all of these elements come together, to execute set changes quickly and seamlessly, and to make sure that the work behind the scenes serves to enhance what is happening on the stage, and all of the costume, set, lighting, sound, props, choreography, and stage crew teams are deserving of a round of applause.
Another breathtaking element of this production is the pit orchestra. Under the direction of music director Nick Werner, the instrumental music simply soars. Werner and choir director Matt Topping are to be commended for working to ensure that the diction was clear-there are a lot of words in this show, and most of them were easy to understand. Overall, the vocals were just as gorgeous as the instrumentals, and there were a number of times when the combination of the voices with the instruments gave me goosebumps.
In highlighting the underlying theme of sanctuary, there is a choir on stage the entire show. The choir consists of over 20 members, including: Amy Boeshore, Kenna Bishop, Lindsay Brucklacher, Diane Bateman, Erin Coulson, Marissa Feinman, Shannon Luciani, Ann Ariano, Tabitha Borges, Ellen Carnahan, Morgan Hackett, Bailey Joseph, Carly Lafferty, Olivia Mohnkern, Libby Moyer, Kaitlyn Perbetsky, Alexander Principe, Joel Sattazahn, Matt Topping, Jared Borges, Kyle Brim, Joseph Herb, Sam Krepps, and Sean Morrison. It is impressive to see so many people sit so still during the majority of the show. Having the choir on stage during the show not only drives home the themes of religion and sanctuary but also the notion that our thoughts, words, and actions are always observed-perhaps by other people, perhaps by God, perhaps only by our own conscience.
Many of the other actors portray several different characters-from congregants to statues and gargoyles to gypsies and townsfolk. This group is made up of Lilliane Campbell, Alex Conrad, Alaina Fritzinger, Jason Genise-Gdula (who also makes an appearance as King Louis XI that has audience's roaring with laughter), Heather Hollenberg, Melissa Lerch, Doug Macut (who also appears as Official), Sean Meara (who takes on the roles of Frederic Charlus and Saint Aphrodisius as well), Megan Mihaljevic, Danielle Miller, Huy Nguyen (who also portrays Jehan Frollo, Dom Claude Frollo's brother), Darren Riddle (who also plays Father Dupin in the beginning of the story), Brian Silva, Caleb Steindel, Jonneke van Olden (who also portrays a fierce and loyal Madame), and Jacquelyn Zliczewski (who also takes the stage as Florika, the Gypsy who Dom Claude Frollo's brother falls in love with). They are the story tellers of the show. Not only do they play various characters (and make it look easy), but they also narrate through speech, song, and gesture, the story of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. It is a pleasure to watch them bring Donna Lynch's choreography, Travis Pierce's blocking, and Dan Burke's fight choreography to life. There are so many wonderful moments when it comes to this group's performance, that it is hard to choose a favorite. One of the most heart-wrenching moments, though is their performance during the song "Made of Stone", which leaves the audience wondering how it is that these stone gargoyles and statues seem to have more compassion and humanity than Frollo and his guards.
TJ Creedon takes on the role of Clopin Trouillefou, the leader of the Gypsies. Creedon plays Clopin with a delightful mixture of mystery and playfulness, and his clear, agile vocals are particularly well-suited to the role. The character of Clopin is more fully developed in the stage version-he is the vehicle through which the audience comes to understand the history of prejudice and hatred directed toward the Romany people and their culture-and Creedon handles the character beautifully.
Brad Barkdoll as Captain Phoebus De Martin and Sean Meara as Lieutenant Frederick Charlus are extremely convincing as military men. Barkdoll approaches Phoebus with an appropriate level of swagger while managing to downplay any egotism that could make the character unlikeable. His interactions with Meara's Frederick come across as genuine. Meara has a remarkable ability to help the audience to see moments of internal conflict and indecision in his character. His Frederick is constantly on the edge between obeying his superiors and doing what he believes is right, and the audience can absolutely feel the tension he experiences through subtle changes in Meara's expression and posture. Barkdoll and Meara both have beautiful, strong, clear voices-every time they were on stage I found myself looking forward to hearing them sing.
Esmeralda, the Gypsy who seems to stir up conflict wherever she goes, is played by Stacey Werner. Werner's Esmeralda is confident, strong, and compassionate. Her interactions with Barkdoll's Phoebus and with Curtis Mittong's Dom Claude Frollo and Nik Olson's Quasimodo are filled with emotion that draws the audience in to the drama of the story unfolding on the stage. Her performance of "God Help the Outcasts" tugs as the heartstrings, and her harmonies as she sings with Olson and Barkdoll are flawlessly beautiful.
One of my favorite aspects of the stage version is that we learn more about Dom Claude Frollo-this already complex character takes on even more complicated dimensions as we see him interact with his brother, Jehan Frollo, played by Huy Nguyen. Curtis, Mittong, as Dom Claude Frollo, gives an astounding performance. Nguyen and Mittong do a great job of demonstrating, through their expression, gestures, and even posture, the differences between these two brothers. The audience cannot help but be moved and feel compassion for Dom Claude Frollo as he experiences the death of his brother. It is difficult to find the words to describe the emotions that Mittong's Frollo evokes-we want to see him as completely villainous, and yet, we can't help but feel his internal struggle and feel compassion for him, even as he threatens Esmeralda, mistreats Quasimodo, discriminates against the Gypsies, and sets the city on fire. Not only is Mittong's acting in this complex role astounding but so is his voice. His duet lines with Olson's Quasimodo are breathtaking, and his performance of "Hellfire" gave me chills.
For as complex as Dom Claude Frollo is, Quasimodo is equally as complicated a role to portray. Quasimodo requires a level of physical, vocal, and emotional precision and agility that is hard to imagine sustaining throughout a stage performance. Nik Olson is mesmerizing as Quasimodo. From his posture to his gestures to his speaking voice and singing voice, Olson embodies this character. One of the most interesting aspects of Quasimodo for me is seeing how Olson subtly adjusts his expression, way of speaking, and even his posture when he interacts with Frollo versus when he interacts with the gargoyles and statues and with Esmeralda. Olson's singing is just as entrancing as his acting. Anything more I could write about Olson's performance would not even come close to doing it justice. Seldom have I seen someone commit so fully and genuinely to such a difficult role.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame truly comes to life on the stage at the Whitaker Center. Audiences will find themselves resonating with the complex characters and themes and becoming emotionally invested in the story. Theatre Harrisburg's entire cast and crew deserve a standing ovation for this stunning performance. Visit www.theatreharrisburg.com to order your tickets before it's too late!
Photo Credit: Chris Guerrisi