Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Bailiwick Repertory Theatre

Also see John's review of Shout! The Mod Musical

George Andrew Wolff and Cast
After the monster success of Les Miserables in 1987, it's surprising there was never a successful large scale adaptation of Victor Hugo's "other" big novel (the European success of Notre Dame de Paris notwithstanding). This version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with book, music and lyrics by Dennis DeYoung (front man of the 1970s'/80s' rock group Styx), could have been the perfect "Hunchback" for that time. Its pop/rock opera sensibility would have fit right in with Les Mis and the early Lloyd Webber shows, and, even today, it's a darn good show.

Rock composers have had little luck writing musical theater, but DeYoung has created a most stage-worthy piece, even for a workshop production. As a book writer, he's fashioned a two-hour and 20 minute reworking of Hugo's 500-page novel that is darker and more faithful to the novelist's intent than most of the live-action film adaptations, let alone the Disney animated version. DeYoung takes seriously Hugo's social commentary about ethnic prejudice and his criticism of the Church's failings toward many of those who most need its compassion (a running theme of Bailiwick's '07-'08 season, it seems). He brings us more deeply into the souls of Quasimodo and the evil priest Frollo, offers a flawed Phoebus (the hero of most other adaptations) and a truly vulnerable Esmerelda. While it seems that some of the early scenes might benefit from a little trimming, the plot moves along quite economically.

DeYoung's music uses a rock beat to spice up a more period flavor in his largely sung-through score. Though he has written many a hit, his first priority in this piece is to serve story and character. Still, he doesn't fail to deliver some very effective musical theater songs, like the power ballads "In My Silence" and "With Every Heartbeat" for Quasimodo, or the big ensemble number for the gypsies and other Parisians, "King of Fools."

Any writer in a workshop would be thrilled to have their piece performed by a cast like this, with all the leads delivering knockout performances. Jeremy Rill, who was a sensational Devil in Bailiwick's Jerry Springer last year, blows the audience away with the powerful internal monologues he sings as Father Frollo and expertly blends both pop and musical theater styling to appropriately serve the material . He manages to push the character's villainy just far enough without going over the edge and helps us understand the priest's torment and lust. George Andrew Wolff is a touching, innocent Quasimodo with an opera-trained voice that makes the show's best songs into true stunners. His mask, designed by Richard Hensel, and his physical posture convincingly transform him into the deformed Hunchback. James Rank, a stalwart of the city's Equity musical theater community, is a suitably vacuous and vain Phoebus —ready to take advantage of Esmerelda's trust in order to gain her sexual affections the night before battle.

Esmeralda is a breakout role for Dana Tretta, who earned great notices and a Jeff award nomination for her Sally Bowles in Theo Ubique's Cabaret last winter. She displays the true vulnerability (physical as well as emotional) that makes the audience care and fear for her. Her vocals are equally as impressive as those her fellow principals. Strong supporting performances are also provided by Liz Pazik as Esmerelda's gypsy aunt Mahiette, Jeffery A. Ward as the Gypsy King Clopin and Michael Harnichar as the soldier Gudule.

The ensemble delivers the high caliber of vocals that have become the norm at Bailiwick and moves quite competently to Brenda Didier's simple but effective choreography. A four-piece band led by music director Keith Dworkin makes inventive use of two keyboards to sound much larger.

Director David Zak places the action on a bi-level set designed by Ian Zywica that suggests various locations in and around the Cathedral as well as judiciously taking the cast into the house. He keeps the action moving while leading his principals to nuanced characterizations that give us a new perspective on characters we think we know from earlier incarnations. Elizabeth Wislar's costumes look authentic and expensive. Lighting design by John Horan sets mood and establish scene changes in the unit set.

DeYoung and Zak have come up with a most worthwhile reason to revisit Hugo's story, and as long as the audience doesn't expect singing gargoyles (there is one but it's inanimate), they'll have a great time and maybe a good cry.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame will be performed Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 PM, and Sundays at 3:30 PM through July 6th. Tickets are $25.00 on Thursdays, $35.00 on Fridays and Sundays, and $45.00 on Saturdays. There will be no performances on July 3rd and 4th. For tickets, call 773-883-1090 or reserve through

Photo: David Zak

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-- John Olson

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