An Epic Hit At The Ogunquit Playhouse
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
As I waited for the curtain to rise for the opening of The Hunchback of Notre Dame I was fascinated by what I could see of the set for this production. I read in the program notes it was designed by Adam Koch exclusively for the Playhouse. I have seen Mr. Koch’s work before and have been impressed, but his work for this production was beyond impressive, it was positively breathtaking.
Ladders, a movable staircase, giant cathedral doors, five large bells, a choir loft, cauldron, revolving stage upon the stage, all appearing and disappearing seamlessly from scene to scene. This, combined with superb lighting, created a visual epic that held the audience spellbound during the entire performance.
But sets alone do not make for a hit play. While drinking in the creative genius of Mr. Koch, something else began to happen on stage. An incredible story, dark yet touching, unfolded. This story was told by actors with talent who were playing at the top of their game.
As the play opens we see the word “Fate” in large letters over the stage. This word would stay with us as we watch events unfold and it will haunt us with the question: How much do we control our own destinies? One that mankind has struggled with throughout the ages.
Theatre is illusion, and when F. Michael Haynie first appears on stage we see him transformed into the part of Quasimodo right before our eyes. It is a stunning moment when he turns to face the audience, his face with just the right lighting, no makeup, and he is suddenly in full character. It is one of those moments in theatre that is never forgotten. Mr. Haynie goes on to give a full and outstanding performance for the rest of the evening. In a stage populated with talent, he shines.
Quasimodo is the illegitimate nephew of Claude Frollo the Archdeacon of Notre Dame. He took in his brother’s out of wedlock child, and to shelter him from the world, confined him to the belfry of the church where he serves as bellringer.
Frollo, powerfully portrayed by Bradley Dean, is tormented by his feelings of guilt when he begins to feel lust for the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda portrayed by the very talented Sydney Morton. Mr. Dean takes the audience on an emotional roller coaster as he elicits feelings of warmth, pity, sadness, and anger in his descent into a darkness from within the soul of Frollo.
The magnificent score written by Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken was originally created for the Disney film. It has been since updated with some songs removed and others added. Many of the songs heard in Ogunquit are being performed on stage for the first time. Some high spots among the many are The Bells of Notre Dame, the touching Out There sung from the tower by Quasimodo, the beautiful duet Someday performed by Esmeralda and Captain Phoebus played by Christopher Johnstone who was last seen on the playhouse stage in South Pacific. His voice is as wonderful now as it was then.
I also want to mention the very strong performance of Paolo Montalbano as Clopin, the king of the gypsies. He also plays the roll of narrator. Along with the gargoyles who come to life only to Quasimodo and serve as a sort of Greek Chorus, the story flows continually.
There is a thirty-two member chorus that occupies the choir loft that is perched high up and to the back of the stage. Their magnificent voices fill the theatre. The Playhouse recruited local talent for the chorus from such groups as the Seaglass Chorale, and they are all first class.
This production is something a bit different for the Playhouse as it has only been performed at two venues in the United States, and this run is being directed for the Ogunquit Playhouse by Shaun Kerrison. It is not a touring company show. Under the artistic direction of Brad Kenney, the Playhouse has become a major player in regional theatre. I believe there is a very strong likelihood this production will move on to Broadway. It is that strong. I hope Mr. Kerrison follows it there.
This play is dark in many parts. It will touch your emotions and make you think about how cruel humans can be to each other and wonder why. It will cause you to look at yourself and, perhaps, question some of the quick judgements we all make about people because they are different. The play does not answer these questions, but I believe it will open many eyes so that we all take the time to be more thoughtful before passing judgement on our fellow human beings.
We can take charge of our fate, but we must grasp our hopes and believe in the good we all have to offer.
See this play. You will be delighted by such a beautiful evening of theatre. You will also leave pondering so much more.
Through August 6th.
For information: OgunquitPlayhouse.org 207.646.5511