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Theater Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

PC: Jack Grace
As the audience walks into the Maui Arts and Cultural Center theater and takes their seat, a robed choir sits silently nearby, and a massive set piece is visible on stage, with actors giving it maintenance. There’s a pair of towering church bells (which occasionally rock back and forth) in four balcony seats above them. The audience is instantly immersed into the world of Victor Hugo.  This MAPA LIVE production of the Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz musical (based on a respected, if not particularly popular 1996 Disney animated movie) is up to the colossal demands of the material from the very first moments.

David Tuttle plays the title character, the hunchbacked orphan raised in a bell tower by arch deacon Frollo (played by Will Kimball). Its Paris of 1482, gypsies are crowding the streets and moral compromise is everywhere. The arrival of the sultry Esmeralda (played by Danielle Mealani Delauney) rattles both Frollo and the sheltered, innocent Quasimodo, who has never experienced the outside world before.

PC: Jack Grace

Tuttle shows us the sweet, gentle soul within the beaten-down, lonely and isolated Quasimodo. Yes, he cries out “Sanctuary!” at one point but the familiar, comedic aspects of the iconic character are pushed aside. With his rich vocals, beaming smile and startling physicality, Tuttle gives a thoroughly winning turn.  Calvin Orlando Smith, with his superb voice and shining presence, gives enormous heft to the sympathetic role of Phoebus. Barron Burton plays Clopin with gusto and Delauney is excellent as Esmeralda.

Despite how strong Tuttle and his co-stars are, the musical belongs to Kimball, whose Frollo isn’t an all-out villain at first. There are hard-to-pull-off shades to the corrupted character, who declares himself (for better or worse) a human being. Last year, Kimball infused the title role in “Jekyll and Hyde” with a similar complexity and gave an equally dynamic performance. He’s extraordinary here, making Frollo initially relatable and admirably flawed. Frollo is both a father figure and captor to Quasimodo; Kimball’s scenes with Tuttle carefully convey the tenderness and control within their poisoned bond.

PC: Jack Grace

When I saw that Quasimodo had gargoyle friends to chat with in his bell tower, my heart sank. Thankfully, rather than carry over the most groan-worthy aspect of the Disney animated film (the quipster talking gargoyles named Victor and Hugo), the characters are handled differently. There a number of gargoyles scattered around the set and a few of them sport beaks. While they converse with Quasimodo, there’s nothing jokey about them. Rather, we learn that only Quasimodo can see them or speak to them. The gargoyles provide a sad indication of Quasimodo’s fractured mind. This is what friends look like when you’ve grown up a prisoner in a bell tower.

Director David C. Johnston, helming yet another MAAC-stravaganza, displays P.T. Barnum showmanship but never at the expense of story or character. In fact, some of the most extraordinary sights in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” are on hand to illustrate the inner life of the protagonists.

A scene in which a tall, three-layered set is spun while Kimball and other actors are on it is jaw-dropping to witness. It’s a crazy thing to see and it appears dangerous. What it provides is a clear visual of the churning within Frollo’s soul. There’s also a clever use of black light during a scene of pursuit and the amazing sight of a giant bell, hovering over center stage, which rocks when a rope is pulled. That bell is to this what the helicopter was to “Miss Saigon.”

Various characters take turns providing narration, a touch that mostly works (the final, poignant bits of narrative should have been delivered by someone other than the title character). Aiding the production immensely is the soaring music direction of Gary K. Leavitt, the sharp, busy but never chaotic choreography of Andre Morrisette and set pieces that stretch up to the top of the stage by Jamie Devereux Tait.

Johnston’s production surpasses the animated source material by going “full dark” and fully exploring the rich, difficult aspects of the material. Yet, this isn’t an oppressive or heavy handed piece of theater. Johnston’s annual summer theater event is, once again, an astonishing feat of community theater. It plays more like a traveling Broadway production than the collaboration of artists who are both local and visitors.

PC: Peter Swanzy

While an overt religious allegory is never established, it’s hard to ignore the apparent visuals and themes suggested. Whereas Frollo is a fallen angel who chokes on his mounting corruption, the kind, long suffering and beaten Quasimodo is clearly a Christ figure (he’s even posed high above the stage or in front of a church glass painting). In lieu of commenting on good and evil or criticizing religious practice, the musical explores the divide between faith in a healing God and how religion can be misused as a means of control.  I never considered before how religion has provided Quasimodo with both comfort and imprisonment. Again, none of this comes across as preachy. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is a plea for compassion.

The ’96 animated film was ahead of its time as a mature, ambitious work but also failed to fully synergize complex themes into mainstream summer movie. The demands of the material and the expectations of what a family-friendly movie could offer were not fully compatible. Now, free of its cute animals and wacky talking gargoyle sidekicks and fully engaged with its dramatic subtext, this musical is fully alive and free of studio mandated constraints.

Johnston’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is a rapturous, powerful experience. This is theatrical storytelling and musical theater of the highest caliber. If the ecstatic opening night audience response is any indication (they couldn’t wait to stand and applaud at the end), then I’m not the only one who was blown away.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame runs from August 25th-Sept 3rd in the Castle Theater at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center. Tickets are available at mauiacademy.org or by calling 808-244-8760.

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About Barry Wurst II

Barry Wurst II

Barry Wurst II is a senior editor & film critic at MAUIWatch. He wrote film reviews for a local Maui publication and taught film classes at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (UCCS). Wurst also co-hosted podcasts for Screengeeks.com and has been published in Bright Lights Film Journal and in other film-related websites. He is currently featured in the new MAUIWatch Podcast- The NERDWatch.

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