Boasting an impressive production and stellar cast, Riverside Center for the Performing Arts is presenting the professional DC-Northern Virginia regional premiere of the dark and romantic musical THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. It is well worth the trip along Interstate 95 to hear the rich score and lyrics by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, respectively, and be taken in by the sumptuous production, one of the biggest I have had the pleasure of seeing at this venue.
You might know the show from the Disney animated film that followed their early musical renaissance hits THE LITTLE MERMAID, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and THE LION KING. As is now American theatre history, the ever-creative folks at the Disney "dream factory" translated those animated classics into now long-running stage musicals. Their other cartoon classics were sure to follow and HUNCHBACK swung onto the stage not via Broadway, but a European production in 1999. The stage musical based on Victor Hugo's gothic novel then went through a long fallow period until La Jolla Playhouse in California and New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse both mounted a revised version that took reportedly realized the darker, more adult (i.e. less Disney-cute) take on the story, and more what Menken and Schwartz had envisioned.
Riverside's producing artistic director Patrick A'Hearn, constantly moving the theatre forward to new artistic heights, grabbed up HUNCHBACK before many other DC-VA-MD regional houses. And he has done a superb job mounting the show, starting with a monumental set design by Sean McClelland that frames the action perfectly for the setting of the famous Parisian cathedral, Notre Dame de Paris, circa 1482, complete with the gorgeous stained glass window. The scenic design moves cinematically from the rooftop and the hallways of the cathedral to the crowded streets of Paris, filled with the lowlifes and colorful characters who live in the shadow of the massive church. A'Hearn's lighting designer Michael Jarett expertly accents the gothic nature of the show and enhances the fluid staging, which includes vivacious choreography by Stephanie Wood. The costumes designed by Jimm Halliday add to the colorful Parisian palette and the period attire and clerical robes look right at home.
A'Hearn's gift for casting is also right on the money for HUNCHBACK starting with the poignant portrayal of the title character by Justin Luciano. As Quasimodo, the ill-fated bell-ringer of Notre Dame, Luciano's performance is a physical marvel, conveying Quasi's misshapen body and childlike innocence with effortless grace. Luciano also has a voice that is tinged with pathos, shining in his musical moments, especially "Out There" (Quasimodo's 'I want ...' song) and "Heaven's Light."
If Quasimodo is the innocent heartbeat of HUNCHBACK, Dom Claude Frollo is the cold, calculated and nearly heartless antagonist which belies his status as a man of the cloth and archdeacon of the cathedral. As played in the 1996 animated film as more of a straight Disney villain, the musical enlivens Frollo with a more complex backstory and deeper relationship with the unfortunate Quasimodo, his surrogate ward, raised in secret in Notre Dame. Frollo is a dream role for a character actor and Thomas Adrian Simpson's skills as a performer are perfectly suited to the part. Simpson finds the tortured humanity and self-righteousness of Frollo and his rich bass-baritone voice mines the layers of meaning and subtext from such songs as "Hellfire" and his scenes with Luciano's Quasimodo.
Also central to the story and the men of HUNCHBACK is the fiery gypsy from the street of Paris, Esmeralda, known for her bewitching looks and suspected of being an actual witch. Esmeralda enchants Quasimodo and she opens her heart to him without recoiling from his appearance as does everyone else. But Dom Frollo risks his position and his immortal soul for the raven-haired beauty, too, setting up the major conflict of morals and cultures. Riverside's Esmeralda is perfectly embodied by the talented Candice Shedd-Thompson.
Rounding out the men connected to Esmeralda is baritone John Flemming as the dashing ex-soldier Captain Phoebus who becomes a cathedral guard, and the main object of the gypsy's affection. Flemming exudes the confidence of a Frenchman and sings with a strapping voice which shines in his songs. Shedd-Thompson and Flemming's scenes brim with romantic chemistry and their voices are also well-matched.
As the king of the gypsies and providing a dash of street performer pizzazz is Colton Montgomery as Clopin giving a fleet-footed performance that put to my mind Joel Greyat his most impish. Montgomery also serves as one of the many balladeers throughout the musical, telling the touching and sad tale of Dom Frollo and Quasimodo under the ringing "Bells of Notre Dame." The framing device of the balladeers adds a theatrical touch not often employed by Disney-based musicals and is a welcome addition. A'Hearn enhances the balladeers and an even richer soundscape to Menken's score with the addition of the Stafford Regional Choral Society, under the direction of Jason Michael. Musical director and conductor Garrett Jones leads the cast, orchestra and choral ensemble with expertise resulting in a phenomenally layered sound that is not often heard in musical theatre; the effect is perfectly at home in the atmosphere needed for HUNCHBACK.
All in all, I recommend a trip to Riverside's HUNCHBACK for a top notch production of a deeper, darker musical from the Disney canon.
Follow Jeff Walker on Twitter - @jeffwalker66
Running Time: Two hours and twenty-five minutes, with one intermission.
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME plays the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts - located at 95 Riverside Parkway, Fredericksburg, VA 22406 - through May 6, 2018. For tickets, call the box office at 540.370.4300 or purchase them online here.
Photo Credit: Riverside Center for the Performing Arts