Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
For the last quarter of a century, the esteemed musical theater program at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) has been led by Aubrey Berg. The program has turned out hundreds of talented and well-prepared students, most of whom affectionately refer to Berg as "Bubba." Mr. Berg is retiring at the end of this school year, and he's going out with a bang, thanks to a massive production of the musical version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. CCM's production showcases its very talented students and many bold strokes from director Berg.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an adaption and expansion of the 1996 Disney animated film. Based on Victor Hugo's 1831 novel, it tells the story the deformed Quasimodo, adopted by the archdeacon Frollo and kept out of sight in the bell tower of the Parisian cathedral. When Quasimodo finally decides to spend a day out among the people below, he is befriended by the gypsy Esmeralda, and he becomes quickly smitten. Quasimodo is rescued by Frollo when he's attacked for his ugliness, and Frollo and his new head of the cathedral guard, Phoebus, are both enamored by Esmeralda as well. The three men compete for the gypsy's affections, which results in pain and suffering for all involved.
The score features music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and is serious in tone and varied in structure. At times it feels like a pop-opera from the 1980s, with recurring musical motifs for each of the main characters, along with complex choral pieces. Quasimodo's "Out There" is a classic "want song," conveying his desire to connect to people and see the world. "Rest and Recreation" is Phoebus's initial reaction to leaving the horrors of war behind for the cushier job (and opportunity for female companionship) found in Paris. Esmerelda's pensive yet passionate "God Help The Outcasts" is certainly a musical highlight of the score, and also displays Schwartz's efficiency and wordplay. Frollo's two primary songs, "Sanctuary!" and "Hellfire", both show a more legitimate musical approach and again, skill by Schwartz lyrically. This isn't one of Menken's more accessible scores, but its challenging nature does have considerable payoffs at times.
The book for the show by Peter Parnell is certainly a darker take on the material than the film, and provides much to think about in regard to social and political themes. This isn't a happy ending type of show, and is almost completely devoid of humor. Narration is used quite a lot (perhaps maybe too much) in telling this complicated tale, especially in the opening scenes.
Mr. Berg provides bold strokes in his direction, most of which land effectively, and extracts committed performances from his actors. He uses a ballet of three actors representing three of the members of the love triangle to bring added visual impact to the song "In A Place of Miracles", and uses the vertical space on stage well. Mr. Berg also seems to parallel the Act 1 closing moments with that of the traditional staging of Les Miserables, another Victor Hugo tale turned musical. There are a number of special effects, some of which are superb, such as the talking headless statue and the rendering of the poured molten lead, while the repeated escape behind a sudden white smoke is somewhat lackluster. Choreographer Katie Johannigman employs very athletic and active dances, and Stephen Goers leads an excellent sounding 17-piece orchestra.
As Quasimodo, Alex Stone provides a beautifully sung and impassioned take on the role. He doesn't take the physical contortion of the deformed character quite as far as others seen in the role, but his rendition is thoughtful and well-grounded. Jenny Mollet skillfully captures the high-energy, carefree, and earthy nature of Esmerelda and supplies first-rate vocals. Bryce Baxter brings an apt intensity and piousness to Frollo, and acts the role well, but is not an ideal fit vocally for the part. Frankie Thams is a well-suited Captain Phoebus, and a strong singer. Kevin Chlapecka displays a variety of talents as Clopin, the leader of the gypsies, but is a bit too over the top at times. The hard-working cast and equally talented choir members, standing the entire production in boxes on both sides of the stage, all deserve kudos as well.
The impressive large and intricate scenic design by Lindsey Purvis features a three-story wooden scaffolding and six large bells. A large banner to help convey day and night is also handsomely rendered, and used effectively by Mr. Berg to communicate the passage of time. Dean Mogle's costumes are apt and nicely detailed, and the stark lighting by Oliver Tidwell-Littleton is perfect for the show. The sound by Matthew Tibbs seemed off in the opening number, but was otherwise well balanced and clear. VThe Hunchback of Notre Dame has never played Broadway, but CCM's production is already (at least) the third local mounting in the last year of this newly licensed show. It's a big show in the way of design, cast size, and overall scale, and seems an appropriate way to say goodbye to a man such as Aubrey Berg who has had a big impact on so many theater professionals and this city.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame played at CCM from March 7 - 10, 2019.