Chicago Theater Review: THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (Music Theater Works in Evanston)

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by Lawrence Bommer on August 19, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


WOW spelled backwards! In almost forty seasons it’s their biggest show, with full orchestra and a cast of over 40, including a seated choir. It sprawls with spectacle but it’s also tight as  a stark story requires. Music Theater Work’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame — a “medieval” musical spun from the 1996 Disney animation — is as big as the cathedral it celebrates and as supple as Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel.

With strong songs by Adam Menken, purposeful lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, and a multiply narrated book by Peter Parnell, this 150-minute thriller combines sympathy for life’s outcasts with a love story as twisted as the gargoyles that glare over Paris and as rambunctious as the anarchic Court of Miracles.

It’s 1482, 537 years before the fire that this April almost consumed Paris’ “symphony of stone.” Prejudice, jealousy and secular-versus-sacred strife rage like today. Despite supposedly answering to a higher power, the proud prelate Frollo (Kent Joseph), a murderous ecclesiastical bully, arsonist and hater, pursues a selfish quest for worldly superiority. Ashamed that his family produced a misfit, this amoral archdeacon has confined his misshapen nephew to the belfry of Notre Dame for twenty years. There Quasimodo (Billy Dawson), whose name means “half made,” rings his beloved bells, confides his dreams to fellow gargoyles, and remains ignorant of the capital city below.

An amalgam of The Phantom, Cyrano de Bergerac, and The Beast (for his disfigurement), Jean Valjean (for his persecution), and, oddly, The Little Mermaid (as he wonders about a world he’s never seen), Quasimodo is a prisoner of Frollo’s paranoia, bigotry and misogyny. (Frollo also recalls Hugo’s other law-and-order-loving villain, the vindictive Inspector Javert.)

Redeeming humanity are the tale’s underdogs. Their flawed humanity reflects the colors of the stained glass and brings life to the flying buttresses (“Top of the World”). When Quasimodo is ironically crowned king-for-a-day during the annual Feast of Fools (“Topsy Turvy”), he’s scorned by the mob but befriended by the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda (Anna Marie Abbate). In an instant the cripple is pole-axed with passion (“Heaven’s Light”).

Quasimodo’s once-cloistered world enlarges even more as he encounters Clopin (Ben Sprunger), the mischief-making King of the Gypsies, and handsome Phoebus de Martin (Erik Dohner), captain of the cathedral guard. The latter proves equally smitten with the temptress Esmeralda. Completing the triangle of would-be suitors to this precursor to Carmen is Frollo himself, a hypocrite drawn to this salacious sinner and intent on destroying this “witch” after she rejects the hypocrite’s advances.

When Esmeralda seeks sanctuary in the Ile de France’s holy precincts, a showdown as decisive as the battle of the barricades in Les Misérables erupts, complete with barred entrances and molten lead. In a Christ-like spirit of sacrifice, Quasimodo discovers that he is not “made of stone” and that the real monster is his sanctimonious uncle.

Splendidly staged by Rudy Hogenmiller, Music Theater Works’ artistic director,, a huge ensemble adds an invaluable third dimension to Disney’s cartoon. The surging score is perfectly shaped by Roger L. Bingaman and his flawless orchestra. The peasant dances erupt with contagious frenzy, thanks to choreographer Clayton Cross.

Most wonderful, Menken and Schwartz’s 20 songs couldn’t be rendered better. Dawson’s full-throated Quasimodo incarnates hidden decency and thwarted love. Abbate’s combustible Esmeralda shines in “Rhythm of the Tambourine,” “God Help the Outcasts,” “Tavern Song,” and “Someday,” an engrossing ballad rhapsodically shared with Dohner’s charismatic Phoebus.

As the loathsome Frollo, Joseph exudes a stalker’s predation (“Hellfire”). Finally, Sprunger’s sprightly Clopin, a trickster puppeteer, radiates opportunism and resistance in “In a Place of Miracles.”

Playing for only one more weekend at Northwestern University’s Cahn Auditorium, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an enthralling delight. It’s as powerful in its own tale-spinning prowess as Les Miserables and as cunningly contrasted as Beauty and the Beast. Once more, Our Lady of Paris catches fire!

photos by Brett Beiner

Anything Goes
Music Theater Works
Cahn Auditorium
600 Emerson Street in Evanston
Fri and Sat at 8; Wed, Thurs and Sun at 2
ends on August 25, 2019
for tickets: 847.920.5360 or Music Theater Works

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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