Circle Players’ current staging of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is indeed part of Disney Theatrical Productions–whose roster includes such notable cartoon-to-stage titles as Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Tarzan and Aladdin—but it’s so much more than a Disney musical. Unlike the aforementioned animated films that became larger than life Broadway extravaganzas full of light, laughter and featuring everything from talking fish to flatulent warthogs, Hunchback leans far more on its original inspiration, Victor Hugo’s classic novel of Quasimodo, a lonely disfigured man forced to live his life in virtual solitude as the bell ringer for the famed French cathedral tower. Thus returning the story to it’s more somber roots.
The majority of the humorous elements are gone, making this, in that regard, the least Disney-eque of the Disney stage adaptations. Instead of Quasimodo looking like Shrek with a slight limp, he’s played more along the lines of The Elephant Man’s John Merrick, in which the actor contorts his face and body to give the illusion of the character’s physical challenges. Gone also are the trio of wise-cracking gargoyles. Replaced instead by a group of actors appearing as statues in the bell tower whom Quasimodo considers his friends.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the animated film and this stage adaptation, unlike most Disney efforts, they do not ‘live happily ever-after’. Spoiler Alert: not everyone survives the end of Act 2.
You may be wondering why then is this still considered a Disney staging? The answer, and the true appeal of this show is simple. Like the 1996 Disney animation, the stage adaptation features songs by the award-winning duo of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. In fact, seven of the film’s original sixteen musical moments are included in the stage version. What’s more, Schwartz and Menken provided several new songs composed specifically for the musical adaptation.
For Circle’s regional premiere director Tim Larson beautifully brings to life to majesty of the story by casting Tyler Evick as Quasimodo. While he’s never played the role on stage before, Evick isn’t exactly a stranger to the role, having recorded Quasimodo’s vocals for MTI (Musical Theatre International) the company that licenses the show to regional theatre companies. As mentioned above, Evick doesn’t rely on a costume or prosthetic makeup to transform himself into Quasimodo, instead he simply, or rather complexly contorts his body and face to convey not only Quasimodo’s physical deformities, but also his labored speech.
When I spoke with Tyler and some of his co-stars for my latest Rapid Fire 20 Q, I noted how moving it is that when Quasimodo is ‘talking’ to his statuary friends, or when alone expressing his feeling via song, his physical limitations seem to disappear as he stands straight and tall and sings in full unencumbered voice. Near the top of Act 1, Tyler’s performance of Out There is indeed among the show’s musical highlights, as are his vocals during Sanctuary, Top of the World and the hauntingly gorgeous Made of Stone.
Cast in the role of Frollo, the Archdeacon of the Cathedral at Notre Dame and Quasimodo’s villainous uncle is Brian Jones. Jones’ previous Circle roles include Ciaphas in Jesus Christ Superstar and Noah in Children of Eden. Following the death of Frollo’s happy-go-lucky brother, Jehan (Trey Palmer) and Jehan’s gypsy lover, Florika (Kristina James), Frollo becomes guardian to an infant Quasimodo. Ashamed of the child’s deformity and convinced it’s restitution for his brother’s reckless ways, Frollo decides to hide his nephew away in the cathedral bell tower. Possessing a roaringly powerful bass voice, Jones is the perfect heavy, definitely lighting the flame to Hellfire, Frollo’s signature song and fright-inducing pinnacle moment. As directed by Larson, Jones’ Frollo steps beyond the bounds of villainy. While he’s definitely the heavy of the piece, he too shows moments of weakness, even compassion, just not enough to make you totally root for his character.
Caught in the middle of Quasimodo’s longing to be ‘normal’ and his uncle’s unholy desires is Courtney Harkins as the gypsy girl, Esmeralda. Something about Harkins’ appearance, maybe it’s the obvious wig, doesn’t exactly say Esmeralda. Physically, the above-referenced Kristina James looks more the part. Nonetheless Harkins takes on the role and does an admirable job. She’s best when she’s playing the flirtatious daring aspects of Esmeralda’s character, in particular during the all-in Topsy Turvy. Sadly her vocals fall short during God Help the Outcast, a moment that should be the absolute emotional climax of the show. Then again, Bette Midler’s stirring closing credits rendition from the animated film is among my absolute favorite Disney moments.
I must point out, however, the shortcomings do not all fall on Harkins as the band frequently drowns out several of the ensemble’s vocals, unfortunately an issue Circle has had since taking up residence in the Looby Theatre. Then there’s the audio issue of the occasional too-hot mic pack causing frequent popping, a unfortunate distraction for the audience, and I’m sure the actors as well.
Speaking of the band, conducted by John Kennerly with John Todd, Amy Frederick, Janelle Spiers and Mark Bealle all on keyboards and Rick Mraz, Bob Bowers and Simon Yeh providing woodwinds with trumpeter Peter Duarte, trombonist Garen Webb, cello by Cremaine Booker and percussion courtesy Alexandro Nichols, the score is beautifully performed, truly capturing the grand scale of cathedral-worthy orchestration.
Rounding out the primary cast is Dwayne Mitchell a Phoebus, a cathedral guard. Caught between his duties as Frollo’s head guard, his attraction to Esmeralda and his concern for Quasimodo, Mitchell balances all three with conviction and confidence. His ability to play both ends of the spectrum are perfectly exemplified by the lighthearted Rest and Recreation and the hopeful Someday (another highlight thanks to his duet partner, Harkins’ Esmeralda.
Of the ensemble, thankfully Palmer’s brief appearance as Jehan isn’t his only role in the show. He later appears as one of Quasimodo’s statue friends as well as one or two other background characters. Like Jones, Palmer possesses a powerful soothing drum-beat of a voice, enhancing the richness of every ensemble number.
Other notable ensemble members include Toryn Aaubrey as Frederic (quite the change from his gender-bending turn as La Cienega in Circle’s recent Bring it On The Musical), Joshua Waldrep, majestic as stained-glass Saint Aphrodisius come to life and the always entertaining Laura Amond as Madame. From the show’s Enigma–esque (it’s a late 90s Gregorian chant-pop music reference kids, Google it) Olim and The Bells of Notre Dame to Act 2’s Flight into Egypt, and the all-in Finale Ultimo, the ensemble joins forces to not only remind the audience of the show’s classical origin, but also it’s show-tastic Disney grandeur.
Circle Players’ The Hunchback of Notre Dame wraps its region premiere at Z. Alexander Looby Theatre (2301 Rosa Parks Blvd., Nashville, TN 37208) with a final evening performance Saturday, November 11 at 7:30p.m. and a 2:30p.m. Sunday matinee closing show. Click Here for tickets.
Next up at Circle Players is The Full Monty onstage at the Looby Theatre from Friday, January 12 through Sunday, January 28. For more information, follow CirclePlayers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
If you’ve enjoyed this review of Circle Players’ The Hunchback of Notre Dame, be sure and check back as I’ll be posting my latest Rapid Fire 20 Q in which I chat with the stars of the show. If you’d like to keep up with the latest from Nashville Arts Critic, subscribe to receive free email alerts when new items are published by entering your email address in the “Subscribe” section to the right of this article. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumbler.