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.