by Sam Pynes
This was my first visit to the Beatrice Community Players. Jamie Ulmer, the artistic director of the Players, director of the show, and veritable hatrack of duties besides, was kind enough to give me a quick tour of the theater and chat after the show.
The performance space itself is a 200-seat blackbox-style theater. The venue previously functioned as a motorcycle shop, and the solid concrete floor made a firm foundation for its next purpose when the Beatrice Community Players took over the space in 1981. Under the stage is a surprisingly extensive costume catalog.
The first thing you might notice about this unique Disney-produced musical is the title. Unlike Disney’s Beauty and the Beast or Disney’s The Little Mermaid, which both lead with the Disney brand as clear adaptations of the popular films, this show is titled The Hunchback of Notre Dame: A New Musical Based on the Victor Hugo Novel and Songs from the Disney Film. The reason for this is that when the musical was first produced in Germany as 1999’s “Der Glöckner von Notre Dame,” the original team reincorporated more of the original novel’s plot. It was written and staged in English by James Lapine and translated to German. It ran in Berlin for a successful three years and 1204 performances.
Direct adaptations of the film were performed at Disney parks in the intervening years, but a full show wasn’t staged in English until 2014. Peter Parnell wrote a new book which excluded the comic-relief characters, among other key plot changes from the film and the German production. New songs were also written by Alan Menken and Steven Schwartz for the English production, some to replace those they had previously written for the Berlin show. Fans of the film will notice story changes that align the story closer to the novel, in most cases merging the two sensibilities. The result is a more complex and serious version of the story, already the darkest of those adapted to animation by Disney in the 1990s.
A simple and open set economically becomes the several locations of the drama, most often the bell tower, with two bells on the extreme edges to which Quasimodo retreats to easily separate him from the other characters in the central space. A raised platform hides the seven-piece orchestra, as well as supports the stationary choir seated in the upstage corners. The orchestra is very competent and maintains good rhythm and energy throughout. Occasionally the choir lacks some of their precision and pep.
Lighting is varied and dramatic. Most striking are the vibrant reds of “Hellfire,” and the gentle beauty of “God Help the Outcasts.”
The ensemble narrates throughout the play, as they transition gracefully between their roles as dancing gypsies, soldiers, and gargoyles. Though they have varied success executing the challenging vocals of the score, a few stand out as especially accurate and energetic.
Connor Husa is the clear star of this show in his committed and confident portrayal of Quasimodo, both in his halting insecurity and the pure singing expression of his innermost desires. The transition between the two was very clear for the audience.
Mike Fox lends a melodious basso to the complex range of obsession, self-justification, pride, cognitive dissonance, and self-hatred of Dom Claude Frollo. “Hellfire” is terrifying.
Anna Erikson sings very beautifully as Esmeralda and connects emotionally to the other leads. “God Help the Outcasts” is especially moving.
Noah Snurr’s Phoebus de Martin is swaggering and likable and his voices blends well with Erikson’s in their lovely duets.
The perversion of the villain is epitomized in his use of the word and concept of “sanctuary.” It is especially revealing to observe how differently Quasimodo uses the term. For our outcast hero, his sanctuary is a home, a family, and a place of belonging and acceptance, but for Frollo it is a place of control where he can shut away the pride of his cognitive dissonance. The way Frollo and Esmeralda approach their respective prayers reminds one instantly of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector from Luke’s Gospel: the former prideful and self-justifying, the latter humble and truth-seeking.
This production is timely, considering the fire that recently brought down the roof of the titled cathedral. The church itself was already a centuries-old structure when this story takes place near the end of the Medieval Period. The release of the novel in 1831 revived public interest in renovating the religious landmark, most notably rebuilding the steeple. It is that 19th century steeple which will be replicated when the roof is eventually replaced in the coming years.
The story remains thematically pertinent to the present day as humanity continues to struggle to love others. Though it is often better to err boldly in this regard, I think the drama is slightly weakened by the too-direct expression of its themes. Esmeralda and Phoebus’s beautiful duet “Someday” expresses a longing for a future time when society is older and more advanced. Though poignant, this song and its restatement in the finale jump out of the story in a way that doesn’t feel natural to its world or characters. It is more of a commentary to the audience on the current world, which is both complementary of modernity’s progressive accomplishments and a challenge to make the world better. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this message, but I think the expression lacks some subtlety, especially when the show’s lyrics claim that the story is a riddle. Seems pretty clear to me.
The curtain came down at 10 PM sharp.
If you go: Remaining shows are September 7-8, and 12-15. Thursday through Saturday shows are at 7:30 pm, with Sunday matinees at 2:00 pm. Tickets are available at the box office and online.
*The Thursday, Sept. 12th performance will be sensory-friendly in an effort to make the show more accessible to those who are easily overstimulated. This is an excellent idea, especially since a theme in the show is acceptance and understanding of those who experience the world differently. Saturday,
Sam Pynes is an actor, writer, and story enthusiast. Mostly harmless.
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