Wanting to better one’s life but restricted by ruling bodies (including the military), and religion, and let’s not forget the self-important aggrandizers, the possessive, jealous, and self-imposed caste system wherein an hierarchy is created among peers. Life is made even worse when one suffers from a physical deformity or mental illness; or both. However, ignorance of one’s condition limits one’s ability to seek a better life. This can be attributed to being closed off from society, from one’s surroundings, and dependent on one person.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Steven Schwartz and Peter Parnell, based on Victor Hugo’s novel, with songs from the animated film by Walt Disney, is presented by Bay Area Musicals at the Victoria Theatre in San Francisco until August 5th. It has seen life in at least three films dating back to 1905 and many stage plays and musicals. BAMs’ Artistic director, founder, and choreographer Matthew McCoy has done a masterful job setting the scene to depict the lives of the underclass in Paris’s Court of Miracles, ruled over by the religious order of the Catholics as enforced by Notre Dame’s Archdeacon Claude Frollo. Frollo, eerie, steely, and conflicted, is played by a fantastic Clay David (who also designed the properties) whose staring eyes sparkle with hatred and evil, especially when singing the musical number “Hellfire,” which resonated through me as I sat in the the front row.
Quasimodo, a hunchback, who, as bell-ringer for the Notre Dame Cathedral, is also partially deaf. He is the orphaned bastard child of Frollo’s sister. The Archdeacon feeds, clothes and teaches the hunchback a craft, a task, and the rudiments of self-care. Though he is despised and shunned by all, Frollo has adopted him, and the hunchback is devoted to him, which you can hear when they sing ” Sanctuary” and “Sanctuary II.”
Award winning Bay area artist Alex Rodriguez has said the he is “thrilled to be making his Bay Area Musical debut” as Quasimodo. We are thrilled to have him in this role. It’s as though he were made for the part, eschewing physical deformity and deafness. Rodriguez plays him with a mixture of bravado and innocence, which is reflected in his strong, soaring vocals: “Out There,” “Heaven’s Light,” and, “Made of Stone,” along with the Gargoyles, his only friends who live directly outside his window in the bell tower.
Quasimodo (Alex Rodriguez) and Esmerelda (Alysia Belken) are on top of the world in the bell-tower of Notre Dame
Accolades are due Matthew McCoy not only for his direction, but also as scenic designer. His rendering of the bell tower from where Quasimodo, The Gargoyles, and Esmeralda sing “Top of the World”; the massive bells, the interior and exterior of the cathedral, and the use of moveable staircases which serve to delineate scenes, and as structures such as the pulpit from which Frollo admonishes his “flock,:'” superb lighting and sound (Eric Johnson and Anton Headman); spot-on costumes by designer Brooke Jennings and assistants; as well as the musicians under the direction of Jon Gallo enhance the production, bringing the Court of Miracles section of Paris, and the cathedral to life so that we all felt we were there.
The plot is complex, involving not only Frollo’s sinful lust for Esmeralda, played to perfection by sensual beauty Alysia Beltran, but also from the Gypsies who are given sanctuary in the basement of the cathedral. The idea of sanctuary whether afforded by the church, a city and /or state resonates hugely today, given the current administration’s draconian trumped up laws mainly regarding the immigration of brown people of the continental south, as well as Muslims, as enacted by the current president and enforced by the AG. Laws that tear families apart and cage children, toddlers and infants. Esmeralda, Quasimodo, Phoebus, and Clopin, King of the Truands (Cathedral guards) manage to get away from the drudgery of their oppressed lives by breaking into song and dance as they sing a rousing “Rhythm of the Tambourine,” in Act I, or joining in the ribaldry of The Feast of Fools during which Quasimodo is mocked as King for his physical and verbal deformities. (Illustration of Feast of Fools with the company; Quasimodo in the center wearing the crown.)
Esmeralda takes pity on Quasimodo when he is chained after a beating ordered by Frollo and pleads for water, which she gives him. The hunchback instantly falls in love with her. She wants to rescue him from Frollo and sure death. Clopin is a rival for Esmeralda’s love. Phoebus, Captain of the King’s Archers (handsome, determined Brandon Thomas, whose bearing is perfect for the part), is also in love with Esmeralda. Frollo and the priests deliver a warning to all if they don’t obey, with their ominus rendition of “Hellfire.”
Act I ends with a paean to Esmeralda, sung by the cast, eponymously titled, “Esmeralda.” The acting is superb, even minor characters are present and focused, never breaking the “fourth wall.” All voices are full-throated passionate harmonies:, solos, duets, and choruses, soar over the full-house audience. One minor complaint is the sound. The Victoria Theatre’s acoustics are far from ideal. The theatre is not large. I wondered if it was necessary to mic the cast. Act II concludes with reprises of “Top of the World,” and “Esmeralda” as the finale, which is also reprised near the beginning of Act I. The entire cast join in for “Finale Ultimo.”
Whether book (based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel), play, film (animated or not), or musical, the premise of the work is timely. Hugo dealt with outcasts, justice, the wrongly convicted; the rich versus the poor, the powerful and the weak; church versus state; human rights, societal mores, the haves and the have nots. In the end, who wins? Is there ever an end? It’s been hundreds of years: not much if anything has changed. I encourage you not to miss it. You will come away with mixed emotions of joy and poignancy.
“Hunchback” runs through August 5th. Sat: 7/14-8/4, 2 and 8PM; Sun 7/15- 8/5, 2PM at the Victoria Theatre, 16th Street @ Mission. BART, Muni 49, 22 Fillmore, 33 Ashbury. Street parking: not advisable. Strobe lights and smoke effects are used very occasionally. Go to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Facebook: bayareamusicals