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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ at Toby’s is a Bell Ringer

Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography

As Disney animated films go, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not your typical treat for children and others who crave magical moments with happy-ever-after endings, such as Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Frozen.  Rather, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo, is on the darker side of the Disney spectrum with few jolly and uplifting moments.  

Nonetheless, the 1996 film was a commercial success, and its rich score with music by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz (the only time these iconic composers collaborated on a project) earned an Oscar nomination.  Peter Parnell penned the book.  #hocoarts

In spectacular fashion, the animated film comes to life at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia.  Co-directed by Helen Hayes Award winners Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick with the music direction of Ross Scott Rawlings, the scrupulously staged and wonderfully performed production should position this show for Helen Hayes recognition next year.

Set in 15th century Paris, a deformed baby is born to carefree Jehan Frollo (played by Justin Calhoun) and a gypsy named Florika (Louisa Tringali).  The baby is handed off to Jehan’s brother, Dom Claude Frollo (Russell Sunday), the powerful and devious Archdeacon of the famed Notre Dame Cathedral, who reluctantly agrees to take care of him.  Because of his new charge’s grotesque looks, Frollo confines the boy to the cathedral’s bell tower and names him Quasimodo.

As he grows up, Quasimodo (Sam Kobren) becomes physically strong and is the cathedral’s bell-ringer but experiences a deep sense of loneliness and isolation.  His imagination allows for gargoyles and statues in the bell tower to come to life and urge him to find his own path.  

While Paris revels in the Feast of Fools, Quasimodo escapes his imposed imprisonment to enjoy the festivities for one day.  At first, he is innocently gawked at for his appearance but then things turn nasty as the crowd humiliates him. Quasimodo is eventually rescued by a beautiful gypsy dancer Esmeralda ( Jessica Bennett). Frollo, who is on a mission to rid Paris of gypsies, sends Quasimodo back inside the cathedral.

Quasimodo becomes enchanted with Esmeralda and her free spirit but he has competition. Dashing Captain Phoebus (Jeffrey Shankle) who is Captain of the Guard falls for her as well as Dom Claude Frollo who is conflicted by his religious beliefs and his desire for Esmeralda.  Quasimodo emerges as the unlikely savior for all.

The story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is relatable today: certain groups of people are scapegoated and treated harshly; individuals who are different are marginalized. During their ordeals, they attempt to find their inner strength to fight back. What transpires are the manifestations of these conflicts, and I will leave it there for the audience to experience.

Jessica Bennett and Sam Kobren Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
In the end, we are all people who seek love and acceptance regardless of our religion, race, physical ability, gender, sexual orientation, or country of origin. The story in The Hunchback of Notre Dame reinforces this truth.

Scenic Designer David A. Hopkins provides the appropriate atmosphere for this production.  Bells hanging from the ceiling complete with sand bags for balancing are a fine touch.  Stain glass windows and candelabras as well as Gothic-designed banisters and other accessories add more flavor.  Then you throw in fog effects and the environment is complete.

Under the co-directors' guidance, the staging of the show is superb.  Scene changes occur swiftly and seamlessly as large set pieces are moved in and out without any distractions.  Every nook and cranny of the available in-the-round space and on two levels are utilized by a large cast that is perpetually in motion. This effect allows members of the audience to feel they are right in the middle of the action.

Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin offers the right illumination for scene changes and dramatic moments, but despite the fact there were no high levels of incandescence in the 15th century, the lighting during many moments in the production seems a bit on the dark side. 

Corey Brown’s sound design is perfect as the cast is well-mic’d.  The seven-piece orchestra ably supports the performers without drowning them out.

Janine Sunday fitted the company with an array of extraordinary  period costumes from the gypsies to the soldiers to the clerics. However, the costumes for the gargoyles and the statues could be more identifiable. If you are not familiar with the story, it would not be obvious that the initial dialogue between Quasimodo and these characters were imaginary.  Other than that small quibble, the costuming is fantastic.

This production is very well-cast, and the individual and collective performances alone make the show a must-see event. While dancing is not a major feature of the show, it is executed meticulously, guided by choreographer Mark Minnick in the high-tempo numbers “Topsy Turvy (Part 2)” and “Tavern Song.” Moreover, the large cast is constantly moving around the stage, which requires expert choreography. Mr. Minnick and the company deliver impressively.

When songs are performed by the entire 24-person cast, you will get goose bumps, I promise. Perfect pitch and harmony with resounding finishes are displayed in these group numbers, which comprise most of the selections. You will really feel you’re in a large cathedral.

Individual performances shine as well. Sam Kobren reprises his role as Quasimodo from his performance in The Hunchback of Notre Dame presented by the Toby Orenstein-founded and -directed Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts production a couple of years back.  He is even better today. 

An exceptional tenor voice carries him through such challenging songs as “Out There” and “Heaven’s Light.”  Mr. Kobren’s outstanding acting skills are also evident exhibiting a wide range of emotions from melancholy from being lonely to joy when in the presence of Esmeralda to rage when he confronts Frollo. He is a stunningly versatile performer.

As the gypsy Esmeralda, Jessica Bennett is also excellent. A Helen Hayes Award nominee, Ms. Bennett effectively conveys the compassionate and free-spirited nature of her character.  Her soprano voice is silky and performs beautifully in such numbers as “Top of the World” and “Someday.”

Russell Sunday as Frollo  Photo: Jeri Tidwell Photography
Jeffrey Shankle, as the rather cocky but charming, Phoebus de Martin, brought his talent to a new level. Always dependably strong in Toby’s productions, his powerful tenor pitch-perfect vocals soared like I’ve never previously heard.  Most of his selections are part of group performances, and he is particularly solid in “Rest and Recreation,” “Rhythm of the Tambourine” and the sparkling duet with Ms. Bennett in “Someday.”

Russell Sunday does a creditable job as the villain Dom Claude Frollo who becomes Quasimodo’s caretaker and attempts to wipe out the gypsies.  His attempt to woo Esmeralda leads to a tragic conclusion.  Mr. Sunday’s solid baritone is featured in the duet with Mr. Kobren “Out There” and in the solo “The Assault.”

The remainder of the cast with most playing multiple roles turn in superb performances especially vocally.  They include: Justin Calhoun, Louisa Tringali, David Bosley-Reynolds, DeCarlo Raspberry, Noah Beye, Matty Montes, Adrienne Athanas, Heather Beck, Brandon Bedore, MaryKate Brouillet, Coby Kay Callahan, Camille Capers, Samantha Deininger, Crystal Freeman, Sylvern Groomes, David James, Santina Maiolatesi, Christian Montgomery, Beth Rayca and Taylor Witt.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame at Toby’s is an extraordinary production that captures your imagination from centuries past while serving as a reminder that many of the same human issues exist today.  The performances and staging are stellar, the buffet scrumptious, and the experience is fulfilling on all levels.  Don’t miss this one. It's a true bell-ringer.

Running time. Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame runs through May 19 at Toby’s, the Dinner Theatre of Columbia, 4900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, MD 21044.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 410-730-8311 or visiting online

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