Ogonquit's "Hunchback": Hump, What Hump?

F.Michael Haynie as Quasimodo and the Cast of "Hunchback of Notre Dame"
(photo: Julia Russell)

Parental guidance warning: this is decidedly not your childrens' cartoon version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame ; rather, it's a “musical created for the adult audience”, according to Thomas Schumacher, President of Disney Theatrical Productions. Based primarily on the original source, the 1831 Victor Hugo novel Notre Dame de Paris, with some songs from the 1996 Disney film, it had its premiere in Berlin in 1999, where it ran for three years. Subsequent versions honed the tale, including the effective prominent presence of a choir, and the elimination of most of the antics of a trio of comic gargoyles. First seen by this critic at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, this is an amazing and satisfying transformation all around, with significant differences in tone, subject matter and sophistication, drastically diverging from the story line of the film. Now in its New England premiere at Ogonquit Playhouse, only the third American production, after having been presented at La Jolla in San Diego and then at Papermill, it's a stunning achievement, much deeper, darker and more deadly, and, ironically, much more animated than the film.

As “The Bells of Notre Dame” in Paris toll, a chorus introduces the story that takes place in and around the cathedral. Two orphaned brothers, Frollo (Bradley Dean) and Jehan (Matthew Amira), were raised by priests of the cathedral; Frollo flourished and became a priest, while Jehan ran off with gypsies and died, leaving his deformed son Quasimodo (F. Michael Haynie) to be brought up by Frollo in the belfry of the cathedral. The boy grows up to be the bell ringer of the cathedral, longing for a fuller life “Out There”. He slips out to the marketplace below during the Feast of Fools celebration and is captivated by the gypsy dancer Esmeralda (Sydney Morton), who arranges for him to be chosen as the King of Fools by the gypsy leader Clopin (Paolo Montalban) in the wonderfully danced “Topsy Turvy”. Esmeralda sings her plaintive plea “God Help the Outcasts” as both Frollo and the handsome Phoebus, Captain of the Guard (Christopher Johnstone) become enamored of her. When Frollo catches Esmeralda and Phoebus in a kiss, he plots revenge, arresting both of them on trumped-up charges. When Esmeralda is brought out to be burned at the stake, Phoebus rescues her but is wounded by Frollo in the process as Quasimodo watches helplessly from the belfry tower (“Esmeralda”). She convinces him to hide Phoebus, but they are found by Frollo who arrests them again. Esmeralda is to be burned at the stake, inspiring Frollo's great solo turn in “Hellfire”. Quasimodo rescues her and takes her to the tower where....well, let's not spoil things. He has a terrific “eleven o'clock number” in “Made of Stone”. Ultimately, he descends to the square, where all the people come to realize what humanity they have in common with the hunchback, seeing him in a new light.

This theatrical version boasts the same creative team as the film, with Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and Book by Peter Parnell, adding almost a dozen new songs and dropping some (such as the frivolous gargoyle number, “A Guy Like You”). Masterfully directed here by Shaun Kerrison with expert Choreography by Connor Gallagher, it's memorable on so many levels, from the breathtaking Scenic Design by Adam Koch, to the clever Costume Design by Martha Bromelmeier (except for the silly gargoyle outfits), complex Lighting Design by Richard Latta and the brilliant Sound Design by Kevin Heard. This version is Conducted by Brent-Alan Huffman, with the added bonus of a powerful thirty-two member choir under Chorus Master Wendell Scott Purrington. The cast is uniformly excellent, most notably the crucial and demanding central role of Haynie's Quasimodo. Morton and Johnstone sing beautifully, and Dean earns a well-deserved ovation for his depiction of the incarnation of evil to counterbalancing the simple goodness of the Hunchback.

The program notes that Hugo discovered a one-worded piece of graffiti in Notre Dame Cathedral, “ANAKTH”, Greek for “fate”. The word FATE appears on the pre-show curtain, referencing Hugo's melancholic approach. The choir, acting as a Greek chorus, actually sings in Greek (Kyrie Eleison) as well as Latin and Romani. The show is mostly serious with very few comic moments, such as a visual gag concerning St. Aphrodisius (Neal Mayer, who has the distinction of having performed in all three American productions of the show). There is a very different ending from the Papermill version, which portrayed the people putting smudges on their faces like those of Quasimodo, symbolically demonstrating their commonality with him as outcasts. Nonetheless, this is still a very moving piece, a Broadway-ready triumph for this company, that truly rings.

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