REVIEW: Avon Players’ ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ Inspires and Enthralls on an Epic Scale

At first blush, The Hunchback of Notre Dame seems like an odd choice for a holiday play. Especially when you consider past Avon productions such as A Christmas Story, Forever Christmas, and Miracle on 34th Street have much more overt seasonal messages. However, as the story unfolds it becomes clear that this play is absolutely perfect for this time of year with its message about kindness, love, and the need for refuge in an all too chaotic world. And if that’s not enough to sway you, then perhaps the diverse and packed audience I witnessed give the cast three rounds of standing ovations at Sunday’s matinee will.

Clayton Hargraves as Quasimodo, an outcast and bell ringer at Notre Dame Cathedral.
Photo credit: Avon Players Facebook Page

This musical is a blending of the 1831 French Romantic/Gothic novel by Victor Hugo and the 1996 Disney film, with music by the legendary Alan Menken (Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast), lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked), and book by Peter Parnell. But before a word is uttered or a note sung, it is the impressive set design by Brad Holoday – complete with gargoyles and drenched in somber and saturated hues that instantly captures your attention and establishes the mood of 15th century France.

Set in Paris, the story starts with two brothers: Claude and Jehan Frollo played by newcomers to the Avon stage Nick Frederick and Joe Mancinotti. While bound by blood, the two couldn’t be more different. Claude sticks to the rules, while Jehan treats them more like guidelines. It therefore comes as no surprise when Jehan takes ill that Claude finds himself once again cleaning up his brother’s messes as he assumes the role of guardian to a deformed baby named Quasimodo. It is important to remember at this time in history, appearances were everything and any deformity was considered an example of God’s punishment for wicked deeds. Claude, who works his way up to the position of Archdeacon at Notre Dame Cathedral begrudgingly sees it as his Christian duty to keep the boy out of sight and give him religious instruction. Make no mistake – Claude has no love toward Quasimodo; only haughty contempt for the burden he must bear. Nick Frederick is to be highly commended for his portrayal of Dom Claude Frollo. Like a slow burn you see the character’s conceit intensify until it is an

uncontrollable raging fire. Frederick really makes you hate him to the point where you want to jump out of your seat and confront him. Or at the very least make you wish you had something you could throw at him. Quasimodo, although physically repulsive, is a gentle soul with a heart purer than most of the patrons of Notre Dame and most certainly his master. As I watched the play, I marveled at how Clayton Hargrave brought Quasimodo to life. It would have been easy to play him with cartoonish characteristics, but Hargrave gives him humanity. Sure, there’s the hunched demeanor and strangled speech, but when Hargrave sings “Out There,” it’s as if Quasimodo’s imperfections fall away and he is truly on the side of angels. And while it may seem they are from vastly different worlds, Esmeralda (Lori Smith) is very much a kindred spirit. Like Quasimodo, she has kindness and Christian charity in spades (“God Help The Outcasts”). Smith is a delight from the moment she appears onstage in “Rhythm of the Tambourine.” When she arrives on the scene, the whole tone changes and everything seems brighter. Think when Dorothy went from Kansas to Oz. It’s a spectacular pivotal moment.

Esmeralda (Lori Smith) captures the attention of Phoebus (Salvatore Sbrocca).
Photo credit: Avon Players Facebook Page

And it’s a moment that doesn’t go unnoticed by Quasimodo and Captain Phoebus De Martin, played suavely by Salvatore Sbrocca in his Avon debut and whose vocals alone are reason enough to see this production. Even the pious Claude Frollo can’t help but be bewitched by Esmeralda. Of course, this deeply confuses him. He is no longer in control of his emotions and desires to the point where it frightens him, and he is forced to admit he’s just like the people he loathes. Eventually his conflict consumes him to the point where he decides that if he can’t have Esmeralda, then he will destroy her at all costs!

Everything about this production is perfection. The mother and son duo of Peggy and John (JD) Deierlein have created a masterpiece and the choreography by Maritoni Harte is sharp and engaging. Every aspect of this production complements each other. Remove one element and the result would not be as cohesive or powerful. Case in point: the choir. Comprised of Jeff Bednar, Stephanie Bonin, Jennifer Combs, Mark Misch, Brandon Morrow, Caitlin O’Brien, Kirsten Renas, and Evan Thurwachter. These voices are on stage throughout the entire show, largely out of view of the audience, but in my opinion the backbone of the vocals. In fact, Menken and Schwartz felt having a live choir on stage was integral in replicating the full-bodied sound from the film and I couldn’t agree more. All the singing is lush and each note sweeps you up with powerful emotion and passion until the sound surrounds you and reverberates throughout your being. I actually felt chills at the end of Act One when the Company sang “Esmeralda.” Another delight is Anthony Tringali as Clopin Trouillefou, the ringleader of the Parisian outcasts, which he portrays with wicked wit. Rounding out this exceptional cast are the Ensemble who deftly move between being gypsies, stone statues, and various other characters without missing a beat. So, hat’s off to Matt Cason, Patrick Daniels, Bill Davenport, George Liebau, Joe Mancinotti, Nikki Mullaly, Tracy Murray, Pamela Plewa, Max Schein, Johannah Steinbrecher-Booker, Kathleen Warner, Geoffrey Wickson, and Scott Wickson. They could definitely hold their own on any professional stage.

Do not miss this show! Treat yourself to a theatrical experience that rivals anything you’ll see on larger stages with touring companies. This production may not contain snow, elves, or even a jolly Santa, but it brings a message of kindness, acceptance, and empathy we all need to hear – especially during the holidays.

The show runs approximately two and a half hours with a 15-minute intermission. Tickets for all shows are $22. Seniors and Student tickets are $20 on Sundays. Call 248-608-9077 for tickets or order online at www.AvonPlayers.org. Group rates are available by calling the box office. “Like” Avon Players Theatre on Facebook for special offers on tickets. Visa and MasterCard are accepted. All seats are reserved.

Catch one of these remaining performances:

  • Friday, November 30             8:00 p.m.
  • Saturday, December 1           8:00 p.m.
  • Sunday, December 2             2:00 p.m.
  • Friday, December 7               8:00 p.m.
  • Saturday, December 8           8:00 p.m.
About Sarah Hovis

Word manipulator, arts appreciator, sports spectator, and world traveler, Sarah charts her own course as the owner of saliho creative. She uses her creative mind and engaging dialogue to fearlessly bring the written word to life in print and online… all while keeping a watchful eye out for the next literary adventure. You can reach her at sarah@rochestermedia.com.

Comments

  1. Just a little correction: the play is set in the medieval 15th century, not the 19th. It was published in 1831. I’ve seen this musical with other companies, in Berlin for the world premier and at Sacramento’s Music Circus just last year and Avon certainly holds it’s own. What struck me about this production, which I hadn’t in the others, is the ending, where the entire cast becomes Quasimodo. A great touch.

  2. It was a truly beautiful and moving production all around. I could go on forever about the little touches I noticed from all the actors involved, but for some reason it was Lori Smith’s Esmeralda beginning a rather defiant, almost angry God Help the Outcasts and ending it with Esmeralda kneeling, tentatively folding her hands in prayer that has stuck with me.

    • I agree, Karrie. As I stated in my review the song ‘Esmeralda” that closed Act One gave me chills. The only other song to send a shiver up my spine like that has been ‘Defying Gravity” from “Wicked.” Then again, Stephen Schwartz is responsible for the lyrics in “Hunchback,” so I shouldn’t be too surprised.

  3. Susan Alexander says:

    Nice piece Sarah, so glad you enjoyed it!

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