Hunchback of Notre Dame

By Philip Pearce

TWO YEARS AGO, the long established Forest Theater Guild joined creative forces with a newly hatched Pacific Grove theater company called Paraphrase Productions. Paraphrase says its aim is to “shine a new light on theater through peer-to-peer mentoring of young adult artists in theatrical performance and creative excellence.” A slick, exciting new production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame suggests the young company is living up to its mission statement. 

With this Hunchback, the accent is on youth. Youthful director Andrew Marderian adroitly exploits the big playing areas of the Outdoor Forest Theater to suit the talents of a gifted cast of about 25 actor/singer/dancers few of whom look to be yet out of their twenties. They are joined by eleven young choristers robed and ready to support the action with anything from Alan Menken and Steven Schwartz show tunes to stretches of medieval liturgical chant. Thursday’s opening night audience was predominantly and appropriately young, excited by the show and ready to clap and whistle their approval of each musical number.

It’s the Disney version of the familiar tale so it adapts and simplifies Victor Hugo’s 19th century bestseller with a timely emphasis on the fate of social outcasts fighting to break through the borders and scale the social barriers (“God Help the Outcasts”) of a hidebound fifteenth century Paris.

The victim-hero Quasimodo, like The Phantom of the Opera, is so physically disfigured he can only hide from human contact in the shadows of his workplace, Quasimodo’s being the tower where he rings the bells of Notre Dame. A brief escape into the real world only earns him public humiliation when he’s voted the ugliest man in Paris at the tumultuous annual Feast of Fools. Malakai Howard acts and sings the role with a lurching gate and an unsentimental pathos that gradually gives way to powerful explosions of hope, of discovery, and of dark rage as he moves out of his tower hideaway (“Top of the World”) into the scary slums and alleyways of Paris. What draws him is a feisty gypsy dancer named Esmeralda, who stands up for him against mob mockery. Repelled at first by this grotesque bell-ringer, she learns to respect and pity him as a fellow outcast, as they join in a duet that dreams of a world where “Someday, life will be kinder.” Taylor Perez Rhoades brings a strong acting talent, powerful dancing and a fine singing voice to the role.  

Her more romantic interest is a soldier called Phoebus, who ironically suffers rejection from Esmeralda’s free and easy gypsy gang with its deep distrust of anything military. Only when he’s been stripped of his military commission and his social status does he become another street-wise protestor defying the bigotry of the Parisian church and state. Dale Thompson handles Phoebus’ shift from smug swagger to compassion and understanding with his accustomed insight and vocal skill, and ably doubles early in the action as Quasimodo’s dissolute dying father Jehan.

Quasimodo’s troubled uncle and religious mentor Frollo provides veteran screen and television actor Ron Joseph with what may be the script’s most complex character. In the words of the show’s opening chorus number, “The Bells of Notre Dame,” Archdeacon Frollo “loved to purge the world of vice and sin and he saw corruption everywhere except within.” Outwardly a ruthless enemy of non-conformity and loose living, he nurses a hidden lust for the exotic Esmeralda that battles against a need to thwart her efforts to liberate Quasimodo, whom he must for secret family reasons keep locked in his belfry away from the world “Out There.” Joseph’s near-liturgical anthem “Hellfire,” which confronts the dark contradictions of his troubled soul, is a spooky highlight of the evening. 

The whole cast have an engaging commitment to their roles and the talent and discipline to bring them to theatrical life. A special delight is Adam Skerritt, who exudes an infectious mischief and sings in a glorious tenor as Esmeralda’s gypsy boss Clopin.

Peter Parnell’s book creates six cathedral gargoyles who serve as a secret support group for Quasimodo and old-world counterfoils to the dastardly Frollo. They provide a kind of Greek chorus commentary on the plot and work to imbue the vacillating hunchback with some social values as fixed but authentic as the stone faces they project from the cornices of Notre Dame. Sam Balali, Jessica Liang, Audrey Moonan, Lauren Pick, Colin Skerritt and Maya Sritharan do full justice to a script that gives life and individuality to each of these stone-faced architectural mentors.

Camrin Dannelly’s choreography is slick and relevant. Paul Davis has provided wheeled set units that shift smoothly, always dominated by a background of giant cathedral bells. Despite a running time of 150 minutes, including intermission, the action never lags. But a starting time of 7:15 means most of Act 1 happens in daylight, so sets, costumes and stage lighting effects only  come into their own after nightfall, with its familiar Carmel background of dark sky and surrounding forest.  

Youthful companies which emphasize learning and discovery are often awarded by jaded reviewers with a patronizing pat on the head and an airy hope of better things to come. This Hunchback of Notre Dame needs no such apologies. Paraphrase Productions have already learned how to present an integrated, mature and satisfying evening of musical theater. 

The show continues through next weekend.

 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

By Jocelyn McMahon

BASED ON the best-selling novel by Mark Haddon, PacRep’s production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, adapted to stage by Simon Stephens, crosses genres and stops at nothing to transport its audience into the mind of Christopher Boone, a young man who clearly doesn’t fit the societal mold of normal. The vision of director Kenneth Kelleher is effective and the execution of this piece allows the audience to see through the lens of Christopher, a 15-year old genius who excels in mathematics (or “maths” as the play is set in Swindon, England) far beyond his years, and dreams of being an astronaut, but struggles with social interaction in a mannerism we can infer is some sort of autism similar to Asperger’s. Though the show begins at a seemingly awkward plot point, Christopher standing over a neighbor’s dead dog whom he is accused of killing, allow about 15 minutes for the unusual pace and narration of the show to sink in. Twists and turns begin popping up in Act 1, drawing such a climactic conclusion that one almost wonders—but certainly doesn’t wish—if it is already the end of the show.

The set and technical design by Patrick McEvoy is reason enough to make the trek out to see The Curious Incident of the Dog. The set, although deceivingly simple, we come to find is much more complex, much like the mind of Christopher, consisting of many hidden exits and latches in addition to a rotating stage. The detailed projections of constellations, outer cosmos and mathematical formulas add an amazing visual dynamic that give us a peak into Christopher’s eidetic way of thinking.

But as an actor, not a mathematician, my favorite part of the show (if I had to pick) was the detailed movement directed by Anne-Marie Talmadge. The intensely precise choreographed action added yet another level of visual and emotional stimulation that gave the ensemble purpose and allowed them to become more than their brief characters. As part of the storytelling process, these actors provided an almost Greek choral-like sense not seen in many modern plays. This tactic allowed the audience to be transferred into a sense of realism without set changes or any major props.

Add an original score by composer David Eakin to the mix, the convincing yet realistically varied accents that can only come from hours of dialect work, plus the use of the live animals, so that when the lights come up it might take one a moment to realize you are in fact still in Carmel, not England.

Yet with all the visual stimulation along the way, the emotional verity is not lost at any point in the production. The casting choice for Christopher is absolutely critical in any production of Curious Incident for he is literally in every scene and has a line count that I can’t even fathom memorizing. Noah Thompson is phenomenal in the role and even through his character’s seeming lack of day to day emotion, he still comes to be our hero and breaks our heart as he discovers the truths of adult life.

A particular stand-out is the scene in Act 2 in which Christopher finds himself lost in the hustle and bustle of a London Train Station for the first time; the accuracy of this moment makes us understand Christopher’s fear and therefore appreciate his bravery that much more.

One of the most climactic moments is after Christopher discovers his father Ed, played terrifically by Rob Devlin, has been holding back truths in order to protect him. It’s a dilemma we all face in life; when is it okay to lie? Devlin accurately portrays both the frustration and affection felt by a father who is in over his head, but tries his best each and every day to make the right choices for his son. Judy, Christopher’s mother, played by Julie Hughett, is another difficult role conveyed wonderfully with multiple layers that peel back scene by scene. As we watch the adults in Christopher’s life fall from their pedestals, we see them display their humanity through the weaknesses and struggles they face.

Another solid acting choice, Malinda DeRouen, plays Siobhan the gentle, soothing therapist that helps narrate part of the story when reading Christopher’s book. Her scenes help unfold some of Christopher’s issues and though characteristics portrayed show similarities to Asperger’s syndrome, his diagnosis is never directly established. This enables the audience to focus on Christopher’s story, not his “disease.” Dealing with touchy subject matter can be like playing with fire, but Thompson’s portrayal is understated and his mannerisms realistic, not as caricature.