Today’s riddle: “Why are Victor Hugo’s stories still so popular?
Quasimodo: “I don’t know, but I have a hunch.”
(Pause for laughter)
Hugo’s tales of France in the turbulent 15th and 19th centuries have all the elements that define a classic. In “Les Miserables” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” find abuses of power, tragic love, the inherent weakness of tyranny, and the restorative value of hope. “Les Mis” was a bitter favorite among some Confederates during the Civil War; “Hunchback…” was the vehicle for Lon Chaney’s unforgettable portrayal of Quasimodo in the 1923 silent film.
Both have become musicals – “Les Mis” an award-sweeping blockbuster; “Hunchback…” riding on the shoulders of a popular animated Disney feature, uses much of the same music but deepens the plot closer to the original.
Riverside’s production of “Les Mis’ remains solidly at the top of their twenty-year production history. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” closes the 20th season. With Riverside’s demonstrable resources for doing justice to a musical of such scope, it’s a solid choice.
Artistic director, Patrick A’Hearn, calls this one his ‘baby’, and evidence of the meticulous care taken in its development is everywhere, beginning with the music. Garrett Jones’ live orchestra accompanies a stunning cast of singers which includes the Stafford Regional Choral Society. Such full company compositions as “The Bells of Notre Dame,” “Esmeralda,” and “Finale Ultimo” rival a well-known Tabernacle choir in thunderous harmony.
The on-stage singers occupy multiple roles that morph flexibly from townspeople to mobs, and monks to gargoyles, those fixed stone creatures that whisper to Quasimodo in his solitude.
Sean McClelland’s soaring scene design literally sets the stage for this larger than life epic. A facsimile of Notre Dame’s famous stained glass Rose Window, flanked by angels and gargoyles, becomes a convincing presence in the lofty interior cathedral scenes, then lifts swiftly out of sight for quick exterior scene changes. Even the giant bells, the bell-ringer’s beloved companions, make occasional working appearances.
But what of Quasimodo himself? There’s a fine balance that must be struck between strength and unconscious pathos. The physical deformity must be dominant, but not overworked; the voice struggling to be understood, but not too self-aware. A new face on Riverside’s stage, Justin Luciano, fulfills the most demanding expectation. His is a stand-out performance in a production filled with superlatives.
That the ‘monster’ can love is just part of his heart-breaking persona. The gypsy girl, Esmeralda, played by Candice Shedd-Thompson, is limber, lovely, and fully aware of her degraded status among Parisians. Sympathy begins her bond with Quasimodo, and death ends it. Almost.
Without an opposing force there is no story, and Dom Claude Frollo, officiant in Notre Dame, despises everything the gypsies stand for – and everything they produce, including Quasimodo, his brother’s own son. Thomas Simpson seems to specialize in the dominating bad-guy role, bringing a high dudgeon slant to every delivery and filling the villain role to capacity. He’s a dark figure, especially when trying to maneuver Esmeralda into his web, but I felt this characterization could be deepened with more shading.
Perhaps the only truly dynamic character in the play – meaning, one who changes from what he appears to be initially – is Phoebus de Martin, a soldier of the realm. He follows orders and does no more than he must do, until he falls in love with Esmeralda. John Flemming as Phoebus suggests, with nuanced naturalism, the latent heroism and fearless sacrifice that lie just below the surface. The duet “Someday” with Esmeralda is a stunning piece of harmony.
Colton Montgomery is a natural wild man as Clopin Trouillefou, (translation: “lame terror-mad”) king of the gypsies full of mercurial urges, and utterly unpredictable in thought and deed. His every appearance has a special force.
Choreographer Stephanie Wood has made an artist’s pallet of the stage, arranging dozens of figures in intricate patterns whether it be monks during their holy chants, or townspeople celebrating the Festival of Fools. Lighting by Michael Jarett accents moments and moods, but is especially interesting in its play on the gargoyles during their whispered comments to Quasimodo.
Everyone wears a mic, so there’s no problem hearing, but there are times when a particularly bright soprano slices through the theatre in deafening volume. Please.
Jimm Halliday’s costumes reflect French medieval history when the military and the Church had iron-handed control of the peasants, and the gypsies, outside of any law but their own, mix the scraps of their poverty with the colors of their defiance. Esmeralda, the gypsy dancer, wears the colors of flame.
What is a ‘sanctuary’? Who is a ‘monster’? Hugo’s masterpiece explores both the heights and depths of human conflict. The musical adaptation brings it into our lives front and center, and reminds us that the centuries may pass swiftly, but human nature changes very little or not at all.
WANT TO GO?
What: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”
Where: Riverside Center for the Performing Arts, 95 Riverside Pkwy, Fredericksburg, Va.
Call: (540) 370-4300 or visit riversidedt.com
Playing through May 6