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PerformanceOnstageReview: 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' has powerhouse vocals, timely...

Review: ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ has powerhouse vocals, timely resonance

Bay Area Musicals' latest production is full of verve and tragic parallels to today—even if the songs aren't quite hummable.

ONSTAGE When Quasimodo (Alex Rodriguez) and Esmeralda (Alysia Noelle Beltran) sit perched on a railing in the bell tower of Notre Dame looking down on Paris and sing “Top of the World” you can almost believe that this spirited pair will find true happiness someday in the City of Light. 

Their singing is so sublime and their friendship so touching that you, along with them, forget about all the obstacles they face in a city that rejects him for his physical deformities, her for being a Gypsy and their possible love because the all-powerful church forbids it. Rodriguez, as the eponymous stooped character Quasimodo, is outstanding. On stage, he dons a hunchback, smears his face, and proceeds to limp through the multi-storied set with an awkward grace. His duets with the vivacious Esmeralda are show-stoppers.

Rodriguez and Beltran are just two of the talented players that bring Victor Hugo’s classic tale “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to life at San Francisco’s Victoria Theater (through August 5). Clay David plays their enemy, the forbidding archdeacon Dom Claude Frollo, with a great command both of evil and thwarted desire. Members of the superb chorus deftly rotate roles as gypsies, soldiers, priests, and gargoyles.

Matthew McCoy, the founder of new nonprofit theater group Bay Area Musicals directed the show that features music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Peter Parnell created the script, based largely on Hugo’s original text, which he combined with the songs Menken and Schwartz wrote for the Disney movie. Though the voices are powerful, and the musical ensemble the Jon Gallo conducts on stage just behind the action is terrific, none of the songs are particularly hummable.

McCoy also designed the set, dominated by the cathedral’s rose window and huge bells that peal to signal the opening of the drama in fifteenth century Paris. It is the Feast of Fools,  the one night when all those considered undesirables and sinners are allowed to come out into the open, dance and revel until dawn. Their joyous dances and debauchery are led by Trouillefou Clopin, the king of the Gypsies, played with great élan by Branden Thomas.

Quasimodo, child of the authoritarian archdeacon’s wayward brother and his Gypsy lover, has been locked in the bell tower since birth. Frollo claims he only wants to protect the young man who because he is physically deformed, deaf and socially isolated, will be taunted and hurt by the people outside.             

Clay David as Frollo. Photo by Ben Krantz

When Quasimodo, egged on by his friends the gargoyles, escapes for the day to join the revelry, Frollo’s predictions come true: The hunchback is harassed and beaten and only saved from a terrible fate by the beautiful Gypsy dancer Esmeralda. She recognizes the kind and gentle soul beneath his distorted figure. He is smitten with her—but he is not the only one. Frollo is tormented by his lust for her. Captain Phoebus (Jack O’Reilly), an officer ordered by Frollo to suppress the Gypsies, also becomes enchanted by Esmeralda. She falls for him too, and, after he is stabbed in a fight, prevails on Quasimodo to offer him sanctuary in the bell tower.

Hugo wrote his timeless novel in 1831, but the story of people scapegoated for their ethnicity, marginalized for their poverty, and deemed “illegal” by narrow-minded authorities is sadly resonant today. As director McCoy says, “In a time when we are inundated with news that speaks of cruel, racial judgment and hateful conduct, I am so humbled to be presenting a story that teaches compassion, empathy, love and forgiveness. I feel certain that Hunchback is the right show, right now.” Seeing the play at the Victoria Theater in the heart of the Mission District truly underscores this point.

Hugo railed against the injustices of his time and was not afraid to name the villains – including the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, the monarchy and the military. 

Yet, despite the world that has conspired against them, Esmeralda and Quasimodo still sing with all their heart about the “Someday,” when “life will be fairer, need will be rarer and greed will not pay.”  Why their aspirations may not fulfilled is something that Hugo—and this marvelous production—force us to reckon with.

Through August 5
Various times, $40+
Victoria Theatre, SF. 
Tickets and more info here

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