Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Hillbarn Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule

Also see Eddie's review of Constellations

Randy O'Hara and Cast
Photo by Mark and Tracy Photography
As a monk-robed choir of eighteen begins to chant in Latin from their two small chapels on either side of the stage, the stunning beauty of their combined, hushed voices is immediately impressive. When they are joined by a "congregation" of eleven in "Bells of Notre Dame," sopranos ring out with arresting power and purity. As all other vocal parts blend with them in glorious harmonies, the combined ensemble builds to such a clarion, climactic volume that at the song's end, spines tingle and mouths open in amazement. Within just a few minutes, this large cast at Hillbarn Theatre clearly establishes that this area premiere of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is going to be extraordinarily special.

The Disney musical by the dream team Alan Menken (music), Stephen Schwartz (lyrics), and James Lapine (book) premiered in Germany in 1999 under the title Der Glöckner von Notre Dame (becoming one of Berlin's longest running musicals), then reemerged in 2014 at La Jolla Playhouse with a book by Peter Parnell; that version ran at Paper Mill Playhouse in 2015, then entered the regional repertoire in 2016. Based on the 1831 novel by Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame as a stage musical retains the songs of the 1996 Disney film while keeping more of the darker, more serious elements of the novel than does the movie.

This is not a musical that guarantees a happy ending; but under the direction of Riley Costello, the Hillbarn Theatre production absolutely proves to be inspiring, moving and uplifting. The musical also indirectly leads to important parallels to current calls in our own society for ostracism of immigrants and for shunning anyone different from those who deem themselves religiously righteous.

"The Bells of Notre Dame" becomes a scene setter for the entire story, as the leader of the City's gypsies, Clopin, describes the early morning hustle and bustle of fishermen, bakers, and other Parisians rushing off to their day's chores while the famous bells "soft as a psalm" and "loud as the thunder" toll the "soul of the city." With a voice that booms like a side-show barker's and rises to fill the stage's plaza with crystal-popping clarity, Brian Palac as Clopin also tells how an Archdeacon of Notre Dame named Frollo reluctantly agrees to raise the baby of his dying brother—a grotesquely deformed child whose mother was a gypsy. Frollo goes on a campaign to protect and even rid Paris of its wandering gypsy immigrants while naming the orphaned child Quasimodo ("Half-formed") and hiding him away in the bell towers of the cathedral among the stone gargoyles.

In a deep voice that finds its way out from far within his self-righteous being in a controlled and controlling manner, Frollo (Gary Giurbino) sings to the now-grown Quasimodo, "The world is cruel, the world is wicked ... You are deformed ... You are ugly ... They'll revile you as a monster." The hunchbacked, limping young man pitifully echoes the words of his uncle, "I am deformed ... I am ugly ... I am a monster." Their duet ("Sanctuary") establishes the uncle/nephew relationship where the former expects the latter to be ever grateful and obedient as well as forever satisfied to be holed up among the pigeons, the gargoyles, and the bells. Fortunately, the gargoyles spring to life in Quasimodo's vivid imagination as trusting, advising friends and use their individually and collectively strong voices to sing their advice and to give him growing confidence that his uncle is perhaps not as holy and pure in intentions as Frollo claims to be.

Quasimodo has a unique view of the city as he watches the life occurring under him that he is barred by his uncle from joining. In a passionate voice full of emotion-filled hopes and dreams, Randy O'Hara as Quasimodo sings of his one wish to have just one day, "Out There." Mr. O'Hara brings much humanity to the young man with a contorted, buckled body; his musical ability is astounding as he soars in vocals that declare as the story progresses his courage to act on conviction of what is right and just.

His desire to see the world below him up close leads him to wander among the crowds on what happens to be day of The Feast of Fools. He soon becomes part of a wild, exciting plaza filled with tambourines, swinging hips, twirling couples, and rhythmic clapping ("Topsy Turvy"). He finds himself crowned "King of the Fools" for being the ugliest; but the initially adoring crowd soon begins to turn much uglier than he, plummeting him with rotten vegetables and their fists. Quasimodo is saved by a beautiful gypsy queen who has just arrived in Paris, Esmeralda; and that act will begin a friendship whose thread will continue throughout the upcoming trials and tribulations of the story.

Amandina Altomare is an Esmeralda extraordinaire who can be raunchily raucous and erotically exotic when the center of a gypsy dancing scene ("Rhythm of the Tambourine"). More impressive, she becomes truly angelic as her glorious, near-flawless voice sings in holy supplication, "God Help the Outcasts." "Please help my people, the poor and the down-trod; I thought we were all the children of God," she opines. Ms. Altomare is superb as both the brash, no-holes-barred gypsy queen as well as the loving, loyal friend who is readily willing to sacrifice her own safety for someone less fortunate even she.

She also becomes the focus of desired love by a young soldier working for the gypsy-hating Archdeacon Frollo. Luke Hamilton is the dashing, full-of-young-ego Phoebus who too brings fine singing abilities to blast clearly in Broadway style as he seeks in Paris "Rest and Restoration." Their chance meeting blossoms into a story-turning relationship that eventually involves Quasimodo. Together, Esmeralda and Phoebus will eventually combine their stellar voices to sing one of the musical's most affecting numbers, "Someday," a song that speaks especially to today's troubling times:

"Someday, when we are wiser
When the world's older
When we have learned
I pray, someday we may yet
Live to live and let live."

As music director, Matt Bourne is to be commended for his direction of an excellent fourteen-piece orchestra. Joined by choral director Joseph Murphy, the two have directed the choir, congregation, and entire cast to produce big choral sounds of complex harmonies, delivered equally well in stunning hushed softness and in arena-shaking volumes.

Jeanne Batacan-Harper revs this cast into hyper-gypsy exuberance in choreography that zings with both ethnic and erotic flavors. Y. Sharon Peng's costumes range from the austere robes of monks to the rainbow of ribbons that thread into gypsy skirts, swirling in eye-popping color and design Her combined costume, make-up, and hair designs completely star as she creates Quasimodo himself.

Robert Bo Golden has impressively re-created a Notre Dame that will remind any past visitor of the magnificence and holiness of the famed structure. The shadow-rich lighting of Pamela Gray and especially the echoing voices of anyone who wanders through the cathedral's vast interior (produced by sound designer Alan Chang) complete the illusion that we are in fact in Paris at Notre Dame.

Hillbarn Theatre has in the past couple of years firmly established the 77-year-old company's ability to produce big-stage musicals with a quality, excellence and inventiveness that far surpass most locally based theatre groups. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is first-class musical theatre in every respect, not the least in the overall near-perfection of the music itself. And perhaps more importantly, the director, cast, and creative team have ensured that the core message of this Menken/Schwartz/Parnell musical is not lost on today's audience, one put to us early on by the gypsy king, Clopin:

"Now here is a riddle to guess if you can
Sing the bells of Notre Dame
Who is the monster and who is the man?"

The Hunchback of Notre Dame continues through September 10, 2017, at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City CA. Tickets are available online at or by calling 650-349-6411.

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