Literary classic gets rock-opera treatment from Dennis DeYoung

By: May. 24, 2022

Review: Epic HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME Stuns with Song at SKYLIGHT MUSIC THEATRE Victor Hugo sure knew how to write poignant tales of miserable people. And luckily, brilliant musicians seem to delight in taking these stories and creating something as poetic and stirring as their source. Music makes even the saddest accounts a bit sweeter -- more digestible too, many would argue. That's certainly the case with Dennis DeYoung's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, on stage at the Skylight Music Theatre through June 12th.

DeYoung is a founding member and the lead vocalist of Styx. Knowing this, the dots connect perfectly upon hearing what he's created for Hunchback. It's a rock-opera, full of power ballads and even a leading role that seems inspired by DeYoung's own frontman tone.

For those unfamiliar, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a French Gothic novel by Victor Hugo that was published in 1831. It's the story of Quasimodo, disfigured from birth and destined to ring the bells of the Notre Dame Cathedral. His benefactor is Frollo, a devout but troubled clergyman. In the royal guard is Captain Phoebus, and the object of all three men's affection is Esmerelda, a Romani dancer. Esmerelda lives in the Court of Miracles, the slums of Paris, alongside mother-figure and fortune-teller Mahiette. The ringleader of their troupe is the thief Clopin.

I won't dig deep into the story, but bear in mind: Hunchback takes place in medieval Paris in a society that's quick to ridicule and villainize those who are deemed different. Be warned that the show includes depictions of suicide, murder, and the gallows. If you were hoping for a Disney-fied version, you won't find it here -- this
Hunchback has no wise-cracking gargoyles.

What it is, however, is staggering, extraordinary, and masterfully staged. The Skylight has outdone themselves with this season finale. Artistic Director Michael Unger says he has been dreaming of staging DeYoung's Hunchback for 28 years. His affinity for the material is a delightful story, so be sure to read the origin of Unger's love for this musical, and his friendship with DeYoung, in your show program.

When I say the Skylight has outdone themselves, it's no exaggeration. The caliber of talent, of vocal power, of triple threats -- I don't know the last time there's been a cast so thoroughly consistent at Skylight. Their shows and casts are always mighty good, but this one is superb.

We first hear Kevin Anderson as Frollo with "Who Will Love This Child." Anderson impresses straight away with his powerful voice that sounds like it could easily front a rock band. He plays the tormented priest with a Javert-esque quality. Should we see the good in him, pity him, despise him? His is a well-rounded portrayal.

Now understand, I found Anderson's voice to be top-notch. But just when you think "Wow, Anderson is killing it!" in comes Ben Gulley, bringing down the house with "In My Silence." Gulley's big, beautiful voice is so utterly transfixing, to compare the two would be unfair. Both are excellent in their own right, but Gulley could hang with the very best of world-class Broadway, opera, you name it. The magic he makes as Quasimodo elicits a feeling that will stick with you. (Isn't that the best?)

As Esmerelda, Skylight welcomes Alanis Sophia, a bilingual songwriter and musician who recently made it to the Top 16 in Season 19 of American Idol. Just as Esmerelda should, Sophia shines and dazzles in both her presence and powerful vocals. Her voice resides somewhere between pop and Disney princess, in an authentic and splendid place all its own.

Mother-figure to Esmerelda, Mahiette, is played by returning favorite Janet Metz. To no one's surprise, she turns this supporting role to gold. Her singular voice and energy elevate every scene she graces. As the Romani ringleader Clopin, Seth K. Hale is another recent Skylight alum. He brings essential levity and a spark of humor to Hunchback, with an impressive voice to boot.

Rounding out the main cast are the king's men, the handsome Phoebus (Joey Chelius) and the guard Gudule (André Sguerra). A Milwaukee native also returning to Skylight, Chelius is a perfect Phoebus full of charm and swagger with a voice to match. Sguerra's incredibly deep register wows at every turn, making Gudule the kind of brute you love to hate.

If all this wasn't enough, the ensemble brings an astounding wall of sound, full of strength and charisma. And dancing? They excel there too. Choreography by Lisa Shriver is a whirl of radiant color and life, filling the stage without ever feeling cramped. It's a stunning achievement.

It also doesn't hurt that lush, vibrant costumes by Alyssa Ridder and towering scenic design by Adam Koch really keep the eye engaged throughout. Hunchback is at once intimate and eye-popping -- a real gem of an experience and one you won't soon forget.