When Jenna Davies took over ownership of the Palace Theatre, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was the first show on her list. Now, nearing the end of an eventful first year, we’ve finally arrived.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” shares some DNA with the Disney film version of the same story: They’re both inspired by the 19th century Victor Hugo novel, and they feature some of the same characters and musical numbers. However, audiences should not come expecting to see a stage version of the Disney movie. This telling of “Hunchback” is truer to the Gothic tragedy of its source material.
The Palace has upped the ante yet again with the set for “Hunchback.” As you enter the auditorium, the flicker of faux candle light dimly illuminates the interior of a Gothic cathedral, with beautifully textured scenic painting that evokes dark wood and carved stone. The central playing space is ringed by 8-foot platforms that form an upper gallery. These platforms actually extend past the edge of the stage, heightening the illusion that the audience really is seated in Notre Dame. The set makes a hell (pardon the pun) of a first impression.
Levi Bruner stars as the titular hunchback, Quasimodo. It’s a challenging role because Peter Parnell’s book embraces the idea of the hunchback as a person with disabilities, who has difficulty hearing and speaking and who has physical differences. Bruner makes big choices and fully commits to the role, creating a vocal performance for Quasimodo’s spoken-word dialogue that acknowledges the character’s deaf speech. In regard to the character’s sung dialogue, one of the show’s central conceits is that Quasimodo’s songs represent his self-image, the “voice inside his head,” and are sung without any vocal affectation; it’s the way that the character “hears” himself, rather than the way others hear him. These challenging songs are sweeping, high-tenor ballads, and Bruner simply nails them.
Equally compelling is John Grayson as Archdeacon Claude Frollo, a character no less central than the titular hunchback. Frollo “adopts” Quasimodo as a baby, serving as a (deeply problematic) father figure, and his desire for domination fuels the story’s conflict. It’s Grayson’s best onstage work yet; his powerful singing voice and intimidating presence are deployed well here. Grayson is able to create real pathos with his empathetic portrayal of Frollo’s fraught relationship with Quasimodo.
There’s no shortage of strong leading performances here. Malia Kerr’s established singing chops are put to good use as Esmeralda, the Romani dancer who serves as a catalyst for the plot. Her confidence and ease on stage are a good match for this strong-willed outcast. Jack Johnson is a particular standout as Clopin Trouillefou, the de facto leader of the Romani living in Paris. His playful showman delights in Clopin’s solo numbers, but even when Clopin isn’t the center of attention, Johnson is always tuned in and fully present. Meanwhile, Spencer Dahl returns to the Palace stage as the charismatic Captain Phoebus. Dahl has grown as an actor since his debut in Beauty and the Beast, and he’s able to imbue Phoebus with roguish charm. A final note: Palace frequently double-casts its productions to make scheduling easier on their actors, so I’m only able to speak to the performances I watched for this review. Audience members at other performances will be able to see Corwin Belnap as Quasimodo, Kelsey Rain as Esmeralda, Bryant Parrish as Phoebus, and Burke Knapp as Clopin.
Of course, one of the biggest selling points of this musical is its beautiful choral music. The ensemble singing is an unqualified success, and the whole cast, as well as music directors Jason Bartosic and Elissa Jones, deserve considerable credit for the show’s gorgeous sound.
“Hunchback,” as Davies observes in her director’s note, is a show that is curiously well-suited for our times, despite being based on a 19th century Gothic novel. That speaks to the enduring power of the story, and Palace’s current production is an excellent way to experience this compelling tale for yourself.
Ted Bonman teaches English and theater at Century High School.