The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Warning: This review may contain spoilers.

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.

2 thoughts on “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”

  1. Gary McMannis says:

    It’s too bad the reviewer totally missed the entire premise of the story. They are hung up on a technical wireless mic when the brilliant cast portrayed the story to a “T”!! Quasimodo is totally on character for the entire performance. Frollo is the quintessential villain as per the Disney version. Esmeralda is brilliant despite fighting off laringitis.
    Please take the time to come out and see for yourself the most brilliant cast and direction in the premiere of the Hunchback of Notre Dame to the city of London.

    1. Hi Gary,

      “stellar performances… are reason… to see the show”; “nuanced, subtle, professional performance”; “believably villainous without resorting to mustache-twirling”; “much more fully-developed… than the script provides”. Those are hardly pans of the acting or actors, and I thought (and stated) that Diegra’s Esmeralda was the highlight of the show. (I had no idea about her having had laryngitis, and I’m even more impressed with her performance learning of it now. That said, would a typical audience member be expected to know of a performer’s past illness? How are you aware of it?) There were many wireless mic issues, which I noted, and they affected the delivery of necessary exposition, but again, I stated up front that it was a preview performance (which, for community theatre, is designed to work out issues like this, as the cast and crew rarely have a chance to work in the performance space during rehearsals) and I highly praised the performances and performers themselves. Indeed, I closed the review by recommending the show to audiences who are accustomed to all of the other high-quality musical performances we’re lucky to have here.

      If you feel the review is unfair, I doubt this will change your mind; I do appreciate that you took the time to express your opinion. Please understand that I wrote it with the intention of presenting a very positive and encouraging take while calling out the few (mostly technical, hence “fixable”) issues that any other audience member would notice.

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