Toby’s Dinner Theatre has been transformed into a cathedral for its towering production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, including some of the most powerful and moving choral work you are likely to hear outside of a house of worship. And that’s saying something, given the Washington, D.C. area’s reputation for excellence in choral groups and church choirs.
It’s not Toby’s air-conditioning giving you chills throughout the show, especially in the heartbreaking second act, but the grandly ecclesiastical singing and inspired acting the company, under the gifted direction of Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick, brings to Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel about outcasts, intolerance and twisted, tortured views of sin and sanctity.
From the first toll of the Notre Dame Cathedral’s bells (Stephen Schwartz’s rich, multi-layered score incorporates the back-and-forth rhythms of tolling carillons and strains of sacred music with more traditional Broadway melodies), you are swept up in the romantic, gothic world of Paris in 1482.
The action centers on the medieval architecture of Notre Dame, where gargoyles (that sing and dance) loom over the citizenry of Paris, marble statues of saints sit in stony stillness (they talk too) and spires reach up to heaven in stern spikes. In this vast space, two men lead small lives—the hunchback Quasimodo (Sam Kobren, astonishingly vulnerable and pure), the bell ringer who is pent up, controlled and made to constantly atone for his deformity by his master Dom Claude Frollo (Russell Sunday, in fine voice and bringing empathetic shadings to the classic villain role), to the point where his only friends are the bells, statues and gargoyles, all of whom he gives pet names.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
closes May 19, 2019
Details and tickets
Frollo has his own Catholic fish to fry. The good father is deformed by guilt and thoughts of sin and damnation that he tries to cover up with a veil of sacrosanctity and judgment. He’s particularly condemning of the gypsies, believing them to be the scourge of Paris and an enemy of the church. If he could just get rid of these “unclean” souls, he could MPGA (Make Paris Great Again).
Frollo really gets a chink in his chalice when the gypsy Esmeralda (the radiant and fervent Jessica Bennett) dances into his life. Alluring, direct and true to herself and her people, Frollo is completely torn in two—one part of him wants to condemn her, one part of him burns to have biblical knowledge of her.
As for Quasimodo, he just wants to love her and be as true a friend to Esmeralda as she is to him. Esmeralda is the first person to see beyond his physical defects to see the kind and strong hero he is inside.
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If this, pardon the expression, rings a bell, you may recall the 1996 animated movie by Disney, which was a departure by the studio at the time for its dark, deep subject matter and not-so-very happy ever after ending. The new musical uses the Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz music and lyrics, but the book by Peter Parnell hews closer to Hugo’s novel, especially in regard to the tragic ending that’ll just rip your heart out by the roots.
There was some concern that the children in the audience may need some therapy after Toby’s production, which starkly portrays lust, prejudice, xenophobia, death and religious hypocrisy. But the kids lapped up every moment, thrilled more than scared, and captivated by Esmeralda, who is not your typical Disney princess and who does not get her prince in the end.
For all the gloom and pain in Hunchback, the show is more inspirational than despairing. Scenic designer David A. Hopkins and lighting designer Lynn Joslin skillfully create two worlds—the bustling, bright streets of Paris and the cool, shadowy expanses of the cathedral, which is both a sanctuary and a prison. Janine Sunday’s costumes capture the hurdy-gurdy color of the gypsy’s costumes and the austere majesty of priestly garments.
The gravitas of the score is lightened by merrier moments, courtesy of the gypsy king Clopin (the charmingly waggish DeCarlo Raspberry), who brings naughty delight to the circus-y swirl of “Topsy Turvy” and a sense of magic to “The Court of Miracles.”
The singing throughout will give you flight. From the sonorous swing of “The Bells of Notre Dame,” and the wonder and yearning of “Top of the World,” to the anthem-like “God Help the Outcasts” and the plaintive ballads “Heaven’s Light” and “Someday,” this may be Schwartz’s and Menken’s most resonant and soaring score yet.
Note: I join the citizens of Paris and the rest of the world in mourning the near total destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral by fire yesterday and take heart in the outpouring of support to rebuild this beloved treasure.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame based on the Victor Hugo novel and songs from the Disney film . Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, Book by Peter Parnell . Directors: Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick. Featuring: Russell Sunday, Justin Calhoun, Louisa Tringali, David Bosley-Reynolds, Sam Kobren, DeCarlo Raspberry, Jeffrey Shankle, Noah Beye, Jessica Bennett, David Bosley-Reynolds, Matty Montes, Adrienne Athanas, Heather Beck, Brandon Bedore, MaryKate Brouillet, Coby Kay Callahan, Camille Capers, Samantha Deininger, Crystal Freeman, Sylvern Groomes, David James, Santina Maiolatesi, Beth Rayca, Taylor Witt. Choreographer: Mark Minnick. Music Director: Ross Scott Rawlings. Scenic Designer: David A. Hopkins. Lighting Designer: Lynn Joslin. Costume Designer: Janine Sunday. Sound Designer: Corey Brown. Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.