On Friday, March 9th, Trent University’s student-run Anne Shirley Theatre Company (ASTC) returns to Market Hall in Peterborough with their presentation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Directed by Tristan Cruise, this production is an amalgamation of the original 1831 gothic novel by French writer Victor Hugo and the 1996 animated film by Walt Disney Studios. Filled with music, passion, adventure, and tragedy, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is another interesting choice in ASTC’s often-unusual offerings of musical theatre entertainment.
Although The Hunchback of Notre Dame was an unlikely subject for a Walt Disney family film, it proved to be a box office success, becoming the fifth highest-grossing film of 1996. With an adaptation of Hugo’s other famous novel, Les Misérables, being one of the most successful stage musicals of all time, Walt Disney Theatrical was hoping The Hunchback of Notre Dame would find similar success on the stage.
However, the musical’s journey to success was a lot bumpier than Disney had hoped. The stage version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame made its debut in Berlin in 1999, making it the first production by Walt Disney Theatrical to open outside of North America. The play found its greatest success in Berlin with a three-year run, which made it one of Germany’s longest-running musicals. However, despite plans to bring the show to New York, complications with the North American production prevented a Broadway premier.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame didn’t come to North America until 2014, when it opened at the La Jolia Playhouse in Sand Diego for a three-month run. The show then moved to Milburn, New Jersey where it was once again workshopped for a potential Broadway debut but, again, nothing transpired. Although The Hunchback of Notre Dame uses the musical numbers from the Walt Disney film, for the most part the story is a closer adaptation of the novel, featuring many of the darker and tragic elements that the Disney film omitted to make it a family-friendly film.
Taking place in Paris in 1482, the story is about the deaf and deformed Quasimodo (Brandon Remmelgas), who lives in the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral where he rings the bells and talks to the gargoyles, while living under the harsh watch of his unloving uncle Claude Frollo (Rowan Lamoureux).
The archdeacon of Notre Dame, Frollo has raised Quasimodo to believe he is a monster, locking him away in the towers where he watches Paris from far above and dreams of the day when he will be allowed to leave the tower and go out into the world.
As Quasimodo delights in watching the preparations for the annual Feasts of Fools festival, when the gypsy people are permitted to celebrate through the streets of Paris, he learns that Frollo plans to persuade King Louis XI to have the gypsies barred from Paris. Fearing this will be his last chance to experience the festival, Quasimodo disguises himself and escapes the great cathedral to experience civilization for the first time.
This is where Quasimodo meets the exotic and kind-hearted gypsy princess Esmerelda (Naomi Woolf), who saves Quasimodo from the cruel crutches of the laughing crowd that crowns him as the King of Fools. But Quasimodo isn’t the only one who succumbs to Esmeralda’s charms: Phoebus de Martin (Karsten Skeries), the captain of the Paris Guard who has returned from a disastrous military campaign, falls for the beautiful gypsy girl as well.
However, Esmeralda also captures the attention of Frollo, who battles his own inner war between his pious beliefs and his lust for a woman who lives among the people he hates.
As friendships are formed and passions erupt, a story filled with romance, xenophobia, and tragedy unfolds.
Production-wise The Hunchback of Notre Dame is unusual, but that is always the appeal of shows put on by ASTC. I found the individuality of the vocal performances by the chorus members to be interesting: instead of finding one uniform sound, it was as if each member of the production was encouraged to find his or her own individual voice while accompanied by the onstage orchestra of Justin Hiscox and Ben Jackson.
This created a very different listening dynamic from most musicals. I appreciated the individuality of the voices of the different chorus members, which allowed me to witness the strengths of each of the players in the show.
I’ve been watching Brandon Remmelgas on stage for as long as I’ve been writing theatre reviews, but as Quasimodo he has finally found a role to showcase his talent and his wonderful soprano voice. Filled with childlike optimism and a wide-eyed innocence, Brandon creates an endearing version of Quasimodo that will be instantly loved by the audience. A strong singer with a unique vocal range, Brandon has great stage charisma and a likeable presence and is the perfect choice to bring the classic character of The Hunchback of Notre Dame to life.
While the show is named after Quasimodo, the story really focuses on Esmerelda. Although it takes a while to make her entrance, once she does Naomi Woolf is thrust onto centre stage. Just like Brandon, Naomi has a likeable stage presence, and is able to pull of that little bit of exotic mystery needed for the character. She gives a charming performance as the gypsy princess.
I feel that Karsten Skeries possibly has the hardest role in the show as Phoebus de Martin, the captain of the Paris Guard. Phoebus is to Quasimodo what Raoul is to The Phantom of the Opera and Clayton is to Tarzan. Despite being the romantic heroes of the story, nobody really likes them. Although we know Phoebus is going to get the girl, the audience will always root for Quasimodo.
Thus, Phoebus needs to be played as heroic but without overshadowing the character of Quasimodo. Karsten stays within his limits of the character by creating a character with a distinct arrogance, but who regains audience sympathy with his heroic actions. Through his performance, Karsten is able to create a character who subtly walks the difficult line between being hero and hound.
The finest performance of the show goes to Rowan Lamoureux as the villainous Claude Frollo. With a dark Rasputinesque quality to him, Rowan has a domineering presence on stage, including his booming voice and strong vocal performances. Both unforgiving and tortured, Frollo is also potentially the show’s most interesting character because, while hateful, the audience actually gets to see and understand his world view, despite how wrong it is. Rowan gives a masterful performance, creating a character who is not just a stock villain, but one filled with depth.
I also want to give a shout out to Kathy Barclay who created the costumes for the show. The beginning of the show has the characters garbed in pale colours with shades of grey, initially giving the production a very drab look. But once the show moves to the Feast of Fools, the gypsies are garbed in beautiful and elaborate costumes filled with colours.
The gypsy girls and the Parisian prostitutes are beautifully dressed, creating juxtaposition with the colours of Notre Dame. I admit that the gypsies, led by Kathryn Marsh in the role of Clopin Trouillefou, were my favourite part of the show. I loved their energy, their voices, and their colourful presence.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a true passion project for director Tristan Cruise, and her passion shows in the hard work she and the ASTC company have put into this production. The musical runs for six performances, on March 9th, 10th, 16th and 17th at 7 p.m. with matinee performances at 2 p.m. on March 10th and 17th. Tickets are $20 ($15 for students/child/seniors) and are available at the Market Hall box office (140 Charlotte St., Peterborough, 705-749-1146) or online at markethall.org.