Ring the bells: 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' swings into Riverside

By JESSE SCOTT FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR Mar 14, 2018

Riverside Center for the Performing Arts is ending its 20th season with a big ol’ bang.

A cast of 18, community choir of 22 and nine-piece orchestra are sharing the stage for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”—the theater’s largest production ever. The epic musical owns the stage now through May 6, with performances Wednesdays through Sundays.

“It’s simply a stunning piece of theater,” said Patrick A’Hearn, director of the show and producing artistic director at Riverside. “We’ve been telling our fans to do themselves a favor with this one. … If they want to experience a beautiful story and they want to be moved, then this is it.”

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” has resonated with generation after generation in various forms. Perhaps most notably and in recent memory, Disney had an animated version in 1996, voiced by the likes of Tom Hulce, Demi Moore and Kevin Kline. In 1999, the story took the form of a musical, making its début in Berlin, Germany. And, the list goes on and on.

All renditions trace back to the original—a 940-page novel that was published by French great Victor Hugo in 1831. For Riverside’s production, it primarily draws heavily on Hugo’s original novel and songs from the iconic Disney flick.

“So much of what the story touches on is still relevant today,” said A’Hearn. “It deals with people who are shunned as outcasts, discrimination and inequality. It’s a very timely piece with an emotional impact.”

As a refresher, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is set in 15th-century Paris and zooms in on Quasimodo, the deformed bell-ringer at the iconic Notre Dame cathedral. While regularly imprisoned by archdeacon Dom Claude Frollo, Quasimodo decides to hit the streets, only to find the world treats him just as cruelly. Along the way, he finds a glimmer of hope in the stunning gypsy Esmeralda, and, in a twist, is ultimately called on to save the day.

Starring as Quasimodo, and in his first production at Riverside, is New York City resident Justin Luciano.

“People say it all the time, but the Disney film was one of my favorite movies growing up,” said Luciano. “I always had this affinity and love for the story and Quasimodo character. It’s nice to see a hero, not because of some magic or the people he knows, but the things he knows inside. I see a lot of myself in him.”

Playing opposite Luciano and as the villainous Frollo is Riverside veteran Thomas Adrian Simpson. Folks may remember Simpson as Javert in Riverside’s “Les Misérables” and boss Franklin Hart Jr. in “9 to 5: The Musical.” Needless to say—and especially with an amazingly bass baritone voice—Simpson has the antagonist role down.

“I do like to embrace the dark side of the villain, though I hope my offstage persona is far away from what I do onstage,” he said with a laugh. “I hope people walk away with a feeling of the inherit goodness of humankind—there is a goodness there. It’s something we should all embrace. We need to realize no matter what our personal shortcomings may be, we can rise above them and make our lives meaningful.”

In addition to a stellar cast and a beautiful cathedral-esque set, A’Hearn, Luciano and Simpson all agree that there is one element that truly sets this show apart: the music. From Gregorian chants to processional pieces to more modern musical segments, this one has it all.

“We’ve been all live music since 2015,” said A’Hearn. “And the music for this is just exquisite … which was originally composed by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.”

“The orchestra that has been assembled for this show is marvelous,” added Simpson. “It’s a sound that I have never heard at Riverside before. It is rich and refined and helps us to tell the story that much better.”

At the reins of the tunes is music director Garrett Jones, who is in his eighth production at Riverside.

“The musician pool we have available to us in the Fredericksburg area is just great,” said Jones. “We’ve worked with so many at the top of their game. To musically put up a show like this is no easy task, but this may be the strongest ensemble for a Riverside show yet. We’re ready to blow people out of their seats.”

While “Hunchback” will close the curtains on another Riverside season, there is quite a bit to look forward to in the next year. Slated for Riverside’s 21st season are “Always … Patsy Cline,” “A Chorus Line,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “A Rockabilly Christmas,” “La Cage aux Folles” and “The Color Purple.”

So, hold on to your seats. There’s a stellar show to enjoy right now and even more just over the horizon.