BWW Review: Zao Theatre Presents THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME
Following his inspired direction of THE ELEPHANT MAN, Zao Theatre's artistic director, Mickey Bryce, returns to themes that address the essence of humanity and expose societal hypocrisy in an equally moving and uplifting production of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.
The musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's 1831 classic about life, love, and justice in medieval Paris is a far and predictable cry from the depth and drama of the original. After all, this current iteration is a descendant of a 1996 Disney animated feature, reworked by the prolific Peter Parnell, and embellished with additional songs by composers Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. The story line and areas of emphasis have gone through the Hollywood/Broadway mill, but the result is blessedly still a stirring allegory about human kindness and the potential for redemptive action.
Bryce has managed to transform the atmosphere of his spacious Church hall into a cathedral-like setting, accentuated by the harmonic chants of a 47-member cast and the glorious music of C. J. O'Hara's orchestra. There is a discernible rise from one's seat as The Bells of Notre Dame echo throughout the great room and the cast congregates onstage to open the show.
The story is bookended by two incisive and complementary riddles: A front end teaser, "Who is the monster and who is the man?" A final penetrating invitation to reflection, "What makes a monster and what makes a man?" The answers to both questions will become apparent, although there will likely be room for ample contemplation.
The figures around whom these probing questions revolve are Quasimodo (Nicholas Hambruch), the hunchbacked bell ringer of Notre-Dame de Paris, and Claude Frollo (Andrew McKee), the Cathedral's self-righteous and sanctimonious archdeacon, whose guardianship of Quasimodo is more akin to that of a jailer than a protector.
Frollo, having adopted the wretched offspring of his late brother Jehan (Robert Andrews), has condemned Quasimodo to a life of toil, hiding his deformity from the rowdy crowds, and relegating him to a bell tower that is more cruel confinement than sanctuary.
If this be a story of hope and salvation, then Esmeralda (Taryn Cantrell) is the saving Grace ~ the gypsy girl, herself and her tribe objects of derision, who sees, beyond Quasimodo's deformity, a gentle man deserving of human respect. She comes to the hunchback's aid after he's been abused by the crowds that have assembled for the Feast of Fools. (He will return the favor.) Noticed amorously by Captain Phoebus (Zac Bushman), a member of the Cathedral Guard, and lustfully by Frollo, Esmeralda is caught in a web that she will struggle unsuccessfully to survive.
Supplementing the fine performances of the central characters are vigorous turns by Bryan Stewart as Clopin, the bold and flashy lord of misrule and the master of the musical's ceremonies, and the octet of agile actors portraying the animated gargoyles with whom Quasimodo communes and who propel him to a final and dramatic act of justice.
Hunchback is an ideal vehicle for addressing issues of the heart and soul and of faith and honor that are as relevant today as they have ever been. (Is it merely coincidence that lately local theatre has been presenting plays about John Merrick, Frankenstein or Jekyll and Hyde. With all the demonization of the other that contaminates public discourse these days, theatre has thankfully entered the fray, as it always does, to challenge these toxic impulses and remind us of our humanity.)
Director/Pastor Bryce has delivered another wholesome and spiritually elevating thought piece for audiences to digest. Kudos!
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME runs through November 17th at Centerstage Church in Apache Junction, AZ.
Poster credit to Zao Theatre