BWW Review: Jefferson Performing Arts Society Presents THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME

BWW Review: Jefferson Performing Arts Society Presents THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME
Photo: John B. Barrios

Back in 1996, when I was just 7 years old, I had the unique experience of attending the premiere for Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It was held in New Orleans, Louisiana (where I live) and was preceded in NOLA fashion with a parade through the French Quarter, followed by the biggest and most Disney-fied concert ever. Then came the main event... the movie. Now, as a 7 year old kid, the movie scared the pants off of me. It was dark. It was sad. It was intense. It had it's funny moments, but overall I just didn't take a liking to it. It terrified me.

Fast forward to my adult self taking voice lessons just for fun and my teacher re-introducing me to the music. I fell in love. For real. This score was something I didn't appreciate as a kid because I was too scared to watch the movie again, and I'm glad she had the sense to make me sing it. It's just gorgeous. Fast forward again to this past weekend when I saw THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME presented live at Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS). Stunning is the word that comes to mind.

Let's start with the set. The stage at JPAS is huge. It could probably house any of the Broadway Across America tours that come through New Orleans. I imagine filling the space is a challenge; however, this set that was leased through Ogunquit Playhouse in Ogunquit, Maine not only filled the space, but that space was also used to the fullest. Every platform, every moving piece, every staircase was utilized beautifully to create a gorgeous backdrop for the story. And can we talk about those bells? Naturally when a good portion of your show takes place in a bell tower it's super important to showcase said bells, but I mean... y'all, these bells were huge. And they moved. And it created such an iconic look for the story. Just wonderful!

BWW Review: Jefferson Performing Arts Society Presents THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME
Photo: John B. Barrios

Speaking of wonderful... I know I alluded to the incredible score before, but it's worth mentioning again. Under the musical direction of Dr. Donna Clavijo and under the baton of Maestro Dennis G. Assaf, the music in this production absolutely swept me away. This story cannot exist without music. I know technically it can because of course it's a Victor Hugo novel; but, it shouldn't. There's just something about the music that makes it so much more emotional and powerful. 'The Bells of Notre Dame' sets the tone for the show when it tells us, "dark was the night when our tale was begun," "a trap had been laid for the gypsies as they gazed up in fear and alarm," and "Judge Claude Frollo longed to purge the world of vice and sin." 'Topsy Turvy' introduces us to Clopin and his band of gypsies. In 'Top of the World,' Quasimodo introduces Esmerelda to his view of Paris. I could go on and on.

By far one of my favorite moments in the show is 'God Help the Outcasts,' which helps us to realize that there's a little more to Esmerelda than what meets the eye. Frollo has basically told her she doesn't belong in a church; but, in her unexpected wisdom questions if people like her... an outcast, a sinner, an undesirable... is exactly who he came for in the first place, and asks him to forgo her to help those who are even less fortunate than she is. It makes me tear up! In this moment she teaches us so much about the human experience and how one of us is not more valuable than another because of our status in life. Cheers to leading lady Micah Desonier not only for singing this song beautifully, but for really digging into Esmerelda's heart and sharing that with the audience.

BWW Review: Jefferson Performing Arts Society Presents THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME
Photo: John B. Barrios

Another favorite moment is when Quasimodo, portrayed by Enrico Cannella, shares his desire to be out in the world and not to hide who he is anymore in 'Out There.' Again, he shares the human experience with us. Who doesn't want to live their most authentic life and have the ability to be in the world and take a risk or two even if it's not what's safe or what is expected of you? I also loved 'Heaven's Light' because, again, it shows the power of human relations, of wanting to be loved, of being shown compassion, of being accepted for who we are. It's just absolutely beautiful.

While the show has so many gorgeous and touching moments, the end still doesn't sit well with me. The "bad guy" dies. But so do the good ones. Although, maybe that's just real life, right? If you're looking for a story that wraps up in a neat little happy bow. This one isn't it. If you're looking for one that rips open what it means to be alive, especially in the world we're living in today when more and more bad things are happening to good people... this show is it. The "bad guy" in this story is Claude Frollo, played by Dennis Jesse. In the Disney movie version of this story he's just a straight up evil dude who serves the "bad guy" role perfectly. But, again, sticking with showing an authentic human experience, in this production there's not really bad vs. good so much as bad thinking he's doing good. I almost felt sorry for Frollo because I think in his own twisted way he really is doing what he thinks is right. But, his reality is so warped and his temptation is so strong that it only leads to death and destruction.

Overall, this was a beautiful production. I can't say it's one of my favorite shows, but I do believe there are truths to be learned from it and almost nothing else comes close to the musical score. I also don't know that I would bring kids to see this. It's much darker and grittier than the Disney movie, and I'm not sure kids would really understand what's happening other than there's this ugly guy that the gypsy is nice to. I'd stick to high school and up for this one unless you're prepared to have some serious conversations with the smaller kiddos.

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME at Jefferson Performing Arts Society is going into its second and final weekend, so make sure to visit for tickets and more information. It's a show you don't want to miss!

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