Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, MD is presently showing “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” based on the 1831 novel by Victor Hugo with songs from the Disney movie. There are new songs as well from Menken and Schwartz with a new book by Peter Parnell that “embraces story theatre and features verbatim passages from Hugo’s Gothic novel.”
This version which opened at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in March of 2015 after premiering at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego to generally positive reviews from the critics is darker than the Disney movie. It reflects Hugo’s story, and, unlike many of Disney’s animated features that went from screen to stage, is really not for very young children. If you had to compare it, think of the other great Hugo story, “Les Misérables,” which does not end happily ever after.
Like “Les Misérables,” this live version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” should be captivating to mature audiences. The characters are more complex and the ending more reflective of Hugo’s historical and literary era.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” plays at Toby’s until May 19, 2019. Tickets are available online or by calling the box office at 410-730-8311.
I had a chance to ask Jessica Bennett, who plays Esmeralda, the gypsy, some questions about herself and the role.
This is Jessica’s Toby’s debut. Her recent roles include: Jessie (“Honestly Abe,” The Actor’s Temple), Dawn (“We the People,” Theatreworks USA), Shawanda (“Elf,” Olney), Patti (“Smokey Joe’s,” Artscentric), Velma (“Chicago,” Keegan – Helen Hayes Lead Actress Nom), Cathy (“Last Five Years,” Stillpointe), Hester (“F***ing A,” Iron Crow Theatre), Kate (“Wild Party,” Iron Crow Theatre). Ithaca College, BFA Musical Theatre.
Can you tell us about yourself, where you are from, where you reside now or any other information you would like us to know about you?
I am Jessica Patrice Bennett, I am originally from Baltimore, MD and I currently live in the DC/MD/VA area.
I see you graduated with a degree in musical theater from Ithaca College. When did you first realize this was your career path? Is it still your path?
My parents will say that I’ve been a “ham “since I was two. I obviously don’t remember anything that early on, but I do remember the first time my mom took me to audition for Broadway’s Lion King when I was about 7 or 8. Auditions were being held at Arena Players in Downtown Baltimore on McCullough Street. I went to the audition and made it to the round of singing for Young Nala. I’ll never forget screaming “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” at the top of my lungs. I wasn’t a singer at the time so thinking about that now cracks me up! Anyway, I was bitten then. A couple of years after that, my parents saw that Arena Players had an after-school Youth Theatre program and that when enrolled, I’d get a free Ben Nye make-up kit. After hearing about the make-up, I was bitten even more. I worked with some of the most incredible teachers at Arena Players. They were the core of my early acting training, and I would be remiss if I didn’t express my gratitude to each of them. I had my last “bitten” moment when I was 15, and my advisor, who also just happened to be the theatre teacher at my school, Garrison Forest, randomly asked me to do a cold reading of the big “Babe” monologue in Crimes of the Heart. I had turned into more of an academic and athlete at that point in my life. So, I thought it strange that he would ask me to do that, but I did it. When I finished reading, he told me that I should consider auditioning for theatre programs in colleges, because he thought I could be the “real deal.” I scoffed then, but after auditioning, getting into Ithaca and managing to stay in the BFA Musical Theatre program (they had a cut system at the time,) there was absolutely no turning back. I moved to New York after graduation and starting booking some gigs, one of which was the Off-Broadway musical, Honestly Abe which played at the Actor’s Temple Theatre on W 47th Street. I did a national tour of We the People with Theatreworks USA after that, then sang for Royal Caribbean cruise line for a couple of years. I’ve been working consistently in the DMV since being on “dry land,” but I plan on moving back to New York to continue my acting career in the very near future. Theatre has always been an inherent piece of me, and I’m excited to say that it is still very much my career path.
As to “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” have you ever seen other versions (movie or TV) or read the book? If so, did it affect your interpretation Esmerelda and, if so, how? If you haven’t, do you plan on watching or reading them before or after the run of the show?
Yes! I definitely saw the film. I’ve been playing the piano since I was 6 so even at that time. I believe I was 7 or 8 when the movie came out. I was super fascinated by it, specifically the music. The music hooked me for sure, but as I continued to watch the movie over and over and over, Esmeralda became my favorite person on the planet. I remember liking her because she wasn’t like the other princesses depicted in the movies. She was nothing like Snow White or Aurora, and I loved that! She was strong. She was a dancer (and so was I.) I was actually so obsessed with Esmeralda that I dressed up as her for my 3rd Grade Class’ Halloween Party. There’s an embarrassing picture somewhere…
What is the hardest part of this role (performing the songs, choreography, character development or other) and have you had to do anything special to prepare for the intimacy of the audience at Toby’s?
Hmm. I think I’d have to say character arc. Without spoiling, I’ll just say that a lot of stuff happens. All the beats leading up to the end have to be justified, and it takes a lot of focus and vulnerability to be able to live honestly on stage and allow those beats and moments to happen authentically. Nothing can be pushed or forced. It just has to land. So, yes, that’s the hardest part., just making sure the audience sees Esmeralda’s arc go from point A to point Z, and making sure that they see all the letters in between so that Point Z doesn’t just show up out of nowhere. As far as preparation is concerned, I think I just have to constantly remember that I’m in a small space in the round and that if I spend too much time on one side, there’s an entire section of people who can’t see me.
What parts of Esmerelda’s character can you relate to? Are there some parts of her character that you cannot relate to or understand?
There is nothing about Esmeralda that I cannot relate to! I’ve never experienced that! It’s exciting to perform a role that I feel I can almost completely connect to! Esmeralda is a free spirit in every way, shape and form. She loves the world and life. She loves people. I believe she thinks that people are born good. She stands up for what’s right and has a little bit of an attitude, but only when someone is treated poorly or unfairly. Through our entire rehearsal process, I’ve found a lot of myself in her and vice versa. I’m super excited to share this powerful show with everyone!