In her creative director’s note for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Alexandra Kane calls it “the hardest show I’ve ever even thought of doing”. And there are many things to like in AK Arts Academy’s ambitious production; the stellar performances by Diegra Kambamba and Colton Abel (winner of a Brickenden Award just a few days ago for playing another classic “deformed” character) are reason enough by themselves to see the show. One hopes, however, that sound issues in Thursday’s preview are resolved for opening and the rest of the run.
As Disney musicals go, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a bit of an odd bird. Quasimodo, the titular hunchback, is almost a secondary character for much of the piece; the nominally-developed relationship between gypsy Esmeralda and Captain Phoebus is given more time, but the purpose almost seems to be to call out the all-too-familiar hypocrisy of Dom Claude Frollo, a powerful clergyman whose actions speak much louder than the tenets of the religion he claims to hold dear. Also troubling is the stereotypical representation of “gypsies” as thieves and charlatans, which serves to back up Frollo’s opinions to the audience; even their seemingly joyous “Feast of Fools” is shown to be little more than cover for pickpocketing and other crimes. Ultimately, Quasimodo is the only “pure” character, and perhaps that’s why the rest of the play’s world has to be portrayed so ambivalently.
In many ways The Hunchback of Notre Dame is Esmeralda’s show, and Diegra Kambamba is easily up to carrying that responsibility. Her presence on stage is palpable, yet she never takes undue advantage of it; it’s a nuanced, subtle, professional performance. Similarly, Colton Abel gives Quasimodo a vulnerable innocence and shows that there’s more to the character than being a simpleton to be pitied. Ben Kennes gives a performance that’s the polar opposite of his Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet (which, to disclose fully, I helped produce), keeping his villain believably villainous without resorting to mustache-twirling; Kyle Stewart’s notable accomplishment is playing Captain Phoebus as a much more fully-developed character than the script provides.
Abel, Kambamba, Kennes, and Stewart are all strong performers who sing in a wide dynamic range, but their quieter moments were often lost to the amplified orchestra and ensemble. Mic issues plagued the preview, with speeches and narrations (particularly those over music) and lyrics difficult to hear even from the second row. On the other hand, the choreography of the cast of 30 was generally very clean, with only one or two unexpected encounters; in combination with a simple lighting cue, a slow-motion scene near the end was surprisingly effective. (Much more so than a completely underwhelming “smoke” effect that’s repeated several times.)
There’s no doubt that musical theatre is surging in London at the moment, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame is in the same ballpark as (and shares several of its cast with) other recent productions of adapted Disney films. Anyone who’s enjoyed those will find similar pleasures here.