Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is presently playing at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Maryland. This is a new musical adaptation based on the Hugo novel and uses songs from the Disney film as well as some new ones. All the music is by Alan Menken and lyrics are by Stephen Schwartz with book by Peter Parnell. The show is directed by Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick. It was originally produced by Disney Theatrical Productions with Orchestrations by Michael Starobin, Incidental and Vocal Arrangements by Michael Kosarin and Dance Arrangements by Rob Berman. This musical version was performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in 2015 to positive reviews after debuting at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego.
Toby’s has always been a regional standout. Their productions are top tier. They do a wide variety of musicals. The price of admission includes appetizing dinner or brunch buffet, but it is the quality of the performances that keep people coming back for, well, decades.
Their production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is no different. The vocalizations, the choreography and the acting ability of this cast rivals Broadway.
Do not expect to see the same “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” that Disney produced in their film. All the music is there with some additions. Some of the characters have not changed very much. This adaptation is much closer to the novel. Characters from the novel, like Frollo’s (Russell Sunday) brother, Jehan (Justin Calhoun), are in Parnell’s script. There are no cute gargoyles to assist the hero and heroine through life’s unfairness, but, instead, the gargoyles are represented by actors differentiated by just a small hint of added costuming. They act more as Quasimodo’s (Sam Kobren) conscience rather than comic relief. The cute little goat of Esmeralda (Jessica Bennett) is gone as well.
The underlying theme of this adaption, although not Hugo’s original intent, is the acceptance of others who are different either by appearance or culture. Quasimodo’s humanity is in stark contrast to Frollo’s antipathy. The deformed man’s kindness and pureness of soul is disparate with the outwardly physically attractive, respectable, religious persona of his “master” who has been his enslaver. Quasimodo’s prison may be the bell tower, but Frollo’s is his inability to see past his own distorted view of the world. Esmerelda may be a gypsy, but she only violates the law to survive. Frollo violates God’s laws to maintain and increase his power.
This darker remake has a more realistic plot. Like many who lived in France at the time of the story and also during Hugo’s time (still reeling from two bloody revolutions and series of foreign wars), the poor, handicapped and outcasts rarely lived happily ever after. Life was not for those that were faint of heart.
There still are some difference between this adaption and Hugo’s novel. Jehan is Quasimodo’s father and his love for the hunchback’s mother causes a rift between the two brothers which is a modern Freudian explanation of Frollo’s mixed feelings to his nephew. A fact he keeps from Quasimodo. It does make Frollo a more complex character as it explains his behavior. Phoebus (Jeffrey Shankle), although having more swagger and lecherousness than his movie counterpart, is still a romantic character in love with Esmeralda which also is a deviation from the novel.
This version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame should not be missed, and Toby’s stage is one of the best places to catch it.
The cast is phenomenal. From the ensemble to the leads they all create wonderful harmonies and have terrific chemistry. This is apparent from the opening “The Bells of Notre Dame.” This song is used to create the opening narrative and reprises during the show to help “fill in the blanks.”
Clopin played by DeCarlo Raspberry is featured in few songs, “Topsy Turvy (Part I and II)” in Act I and “Court of Miracles’ in Act II. Raspberry’s wonderful vocalizations and stage presence are perfectly directed so that he is the center of our attention during these numbers.
Sunday’s Frollo dominates the stage as his character dominates those around him. Sunday’s deep baritone is ominous, and his song, “Hellfire” will bring shivers to your spine. Sunday also lets us peer into Frollo’s conflicted soul, loving his brother but hating his nephew, longing for Esmeralda but despising her for causing him to feel this unwanted attraction.
Phoebus is introduced in “Rest and Recreation” and Shankle deftly captures the tired soldier who just wants to not face war day after day. Shankle shines is his duo with Esmeralda “Someday”.
However, this show is about Esmeralda and Quasimodo. Bennett’s gypsy is sexy and strong. This is an Esmeralda who maintains some control even when she is a captive. Bennett steals your heart just like she was able to steal the bell-ringer’s and the soldier’s. From her introduction during the Day of Fools with “Rhythm of the Tambourine” to the finales of Act I and Act II “Esmeralda” Bennett’s characterization leaves a lasting impression. Her song with Quasimodo, “Top of the Word” in Act I is rightly one of the show stoppers.
Kobren becomes Quasimodo from the moment he puts on his hump in front of us in the opening. He keeps the character childlike and sweet. We see him change as he finds out the world is cruel and ugly, but he never allows the hero to lose his innocence. Kobren’s performance brilliantly takes us from the optimism of “Out There” to his anguish as he becomes more worldly in “Made of Stone.”
The supporting cast, as one has come to expect at Toby’s, are a group of extremely talented actors and singers. They include David Bosley-Reynolds as Father Dupin and King Louis the XI of France, Calhoun as Jehan Frollo and Saint Aphrodisius, Louisa Tringali as Florika, Noah Beye as Federic Charlus, Matty Montes as Official and Adrienne Athanas as Madame. Because they are all such fine performers, they are in a large part responsible for the success of this production. There are no weak performances.
That is true of the rest of the Ensemble which includes all the aforementioned supporting players plus Heather Beck, Brandon Bedore, MaryKate Brouillet, Coby Kay Callahan, Camille Capers, Samantha Deininger, Crystal Freeman, Sylvern Groomes, David James, Santina Maiolatesi, Christian Montgomery, Beth Rayca and Taylor Witt.
The direction by Orenstein and Minnick is as always high quality. It is their attention to detail which creates memorable photographs in our minds. They do this by staging a unique variation of levels for the performers and craftily dealing with the tricky theatre-in-the-round format in a very intimate venue. This is a tradition at Toby’s. This play is one of their best.
Minnick is also the Choreographer. His distinctive style is highlighted in “Tavern Song.” Minnick makes the most of a large cast in this venue.
Ross Scott Rawlings Musical Direction is a big plus to this production. I always appreciate a live orchestra. Some of these songs are very musically complex and Rawlings and the Orchestra are superb.
The Scenic Design is by David A. Hopkins. His flexible set takes us from the streets of Paris, to a tavern, to the Royal Court, to the gypsy hideout and, of course, the Notre Dame Cathedral, including the bell tower. It all works brilliantly and seamlessly.
The Lighting Design by Lynn Joslin adds to the medieval feeling, and I appreciated that it was bright enough to see the actors’ faces at all times.
The Sound Design on this show, due to the bell ringing, is also important to its flavor. Corey Brown does an inspired job in helping us feel a little like we are Quasimodo, who loves the bells so much he named them.
Janine Sunday is the Costume Designer. All the costumes are historically authentic. I particularly appreciate the way she costumes Quasimodo, not too much, but enough to give us a sense of his disability. I also feel she helps capture the alluring Esmeralda without making her look slutty.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” by Hugo is open to many interpretations. This musical adaption has kept the tale relevant. It deals with prejudice towards the handicapped and those not like ourselves. It gives a close look at the abuse of power. It looks at the problems of class distinction. It delves into the religious hierarchy’s loss of the true meaning of their beliefs. As we come to terms with some of these evils in our own world, we need to remember this has been a struggle since the beginning of time. This version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” should not be missed, and Toby’s stage is one of the best places to catch it.
Advisory: This play may not be suitable for very young children due to violence and mature subject matter.
Running Time: Two hours and 35 minutes with an intermission.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” will be playing at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia MD 21044 until May 19, 2019. Tickets are available online or by calling the box office at 410-730-8311.