‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ at the Hale Centre Theatre offers potent parallels to modern times
High up in the bell tower of the cathedral Notre Dame in Paris, France, resides the deeply deformed Quasimodo. With no friends but his pious and abusive uncle Frollo, his bells (which he has named) and three stone gargoyles, Quasimodo is simple and innocent, yearning to “just live one day out there,” beyond the confines of his sanctuary prison.
It’s hard not to fall in love with the character of Quasimodo, portrayed by James Bounous of the Monday/Wednesday/Friday cast in the Hale Centre Theatre’s current production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” playing now through March 31 in the Centre Stage Theatre. Though I have never been a big fan of Victor Hugo’s original story, or honestly, even Disney’s 1996 cartoon take on it which, to me, is still sad and unfulfilling, there was plenty that was masterful, beautiful and even deeply meaningful about the Hale’s portrayal of the show, and it carries with it a message that is still pertinent today.
As food for thought, Disney is well-known for taking stories with some pretty terrible features and turning them into charming “happily ever afters” that grace the film collections of many families. For example, have you ever read the real ending to “The Little Mermaid,” where the girl doesn’t get the prince, and instead turns into sea foam? Or the Rapunzel story, where she’s cast into the desert and has twins, while her blinded prince wanders forlornly for years before their reunion? Or “Cinderella,” where the step-sisters endure some pretty awful foot mutilation in vain attempts to fit the shoe and get the prince? Yeah. The original fairy tales are far from the picture-perfect happily ever after, and though I wouldn’t go as far as to call “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” a fairy tale, even its scrubbed Disney ending, which has Esmerelda escaping near-death with her love, Captain Phoebus de Martin, leaves a less-than-happy ending for Quasimodo, who has also grown to love Esmerelda. It’s never sat well with me, though there’s no denying the power of the messages behind the show, and of course the incredible music created at the hands of Alan Menken.
In the stage production, much focus is given to Claude Frollo (played by Josh Richardson). His background is given some depth, including a complicated relationship with his brother (the father of Quasimodo who dies and leaves his baby to Frollo), a deep hatred for gypsies (especially Quasimodo’s mother) and an incredible sense of self-righteousness and virtue. Often, his present experiences in the show overshadow those of Quasimodo’s, which almost felt like more reason to resent him. Richardson is masterful in the role, positioning himself as Quasimodo’s only friend while reminding him of his ugliness and deformities and convincing him he’s a monster.
Frollo names his nephew Quasimodo in one of his first acts of cruelty against the child, fitting him with a name that means half-formed. It’s at that moment that a profound question is first asked, “Who is the monster and who is the man?”
For those unfamiliar, in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Quasimodo finally works up the courage to leave the cathedral during the Feast of Fools. Though he’s met with scorn and cruelty, he encounters a beautiful gypsy named Esmerelda who shows him kindness and friendship for the first time in his life. He’s understandably taken with her, but so is cruel Frollo and Pheobus, a captain just returned from the battlefront (played Preston Yates from the Monday/Wednesday/Friday cast).
From the moment the show opened, I was blown away by the vocal talent of the cast, and not just the leads such as Richardson and Bounous. I cringed a little when I first saw the cast and choir enter the stage, but was quickly lost in the depth of their soulful music and chanting, which genuinely did transport me to Notre Dame and draw me deeper into the story.
Combined with narrations by Brock Dalgleish, Kaitlyn Dahl and Jacob Theo Squire, who all took on the role of multiple characters, including the gargoyles, to narrate and move the plot along, it was hard not to become invested in what was happening on stage. I particularly loved Squire’s time spent as Clopin Trouillefou in the show -- he was incredibly engaging as the head of the gypsies, and brought depth and even compassion to a people known as outcasts.
Probably one of the most powerful moments of the evening came when Rebecca Burroughs as Esmerelda ventured into Notre Dame for her performance of “God Help the Outcasts.”
The lyrics themselves are quite powerful: “I don’t know if you can hear me, of if you’re even there, I don’t know if you would listen to a gypsy’s prayer. Yes, I know I’m just an outcast, I shouldn’t speak to you, still I see your face and wonder, were you once an outcast too?”
As parishioners surround Esmerelda asking God for wealth, fame and glory, Burroughs bursts forward and powerfully exclaims, “I ask for nothing, I can get by, but I know so many less lucky than I. Please help my people, the poor and downtrod. I thought we all were the children of God.”
One thing I love about live theater is the way it invites audiences to think -- to compare the show to reality and examine the lessons it offers. As Frollo instructs Quasimodo that he is a monster, throughout the story all you see from Quasimodo is kindness and innocence, and from Frollo monstrous cruelty. The show puts the pious on trial in a way as they come to Notre Dame as Christians but treat Quasimodo and others with pure contempt. It reminds those watching of the importance of compassion, of looking outward and of withholding judgment, understanding that we’re all flawed, and those are all things I’ve specifically seen a need for in our society today.
It’s uncomfortable at times to watch “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” It’s hard to see rash judgment, hatred, scorn and selfishness, and to know that it often is just holding up a mirror to things in the world today. But it was also incredible to see kindness, to be reminded that not every story has a squeaky clean happily ever after, and that sometimes people genuinely struggle and face cruelty throughout their lives because of what they look like or where they are born.
Combining those important undercurrents with an incredibly talented cast, near flawless, passionate vocal performances and beyond imaginative and powerful staging, and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at the Hale Centre Theatre in Sandy is well worth a visit.
Basic wooden trusses provided a foundation for the set, but rotating platforms, rising and lowering floor sections and set pieces emerging from both the depths of the stage and the rafters created a magical transformation during each scene. Combined with thoughtful lighting, the complex but exquisite staging was incredibly timed and absolutely enchanting, creating a reason to see the show in and of itself.
The production, which runs about two-and-a-half hours with intermission, shows Monday-Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 12:30, 4 and 7:30 p.m. through March 31, excluding Sundays and Feb. 28. Tickets are $40 for adults and $20 for children 5 and older (no younger children permitted). For more details on the show or to purchase tickets, visit hct.org. A preview feature on the show with cast comments can also be viewed here.