Hillbarn gets ambitious with ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’

Victor Hugo wrote “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1831 and set it in Paris in 1482, but some of its issues resemble those troubling the United States today.

These resemblances are seen in the musical version staged by Hillbarn Theatre to open its 77th season.

There’s an autocratic church leader acting counter to Christianity’s teachings and his vow of chastity. There’s an oppressed minority group, gypsies, who are systematically excluded from the city. And there’s the bullying of someone who’s different.

The church leader is Dom Claude Frollo (Gary Giurbino), archbishop of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. He has been entrusted with the care of his deformed infant nephew after the death of the boy’s parents.

That boy grows up to be Quasimodo (Randy O’Hara), whom Frollo keeps as a virtual prisoner in the cathedral’s bell tower.

One day Quasimodo escapes and encounters a group of gypsies dancing in the streets. He happily joins them until they start taunting him and throwing things at him. Only the gypsy dancer, Esmeralda (Amandina Altomare), takes pity on him.

She becomes the love interest of Phoebus de Martin (Luke Hamilton), the soldier sent to find Quasimodo. She also catches Frollo’s lustful eye. Things don’t turn out well.

This musical is based on the Disney film and uses its songs along with new ones by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, with a book by Peter Parnell.

Directed by Riley Costello with musical direction by Matt Bourne, Hillbarn’s production is a massive undertaking with six named characters, 11-member ensemble, 14-member orchestra and 18-member choir.

The action takes place on a two-level Gothic set created by Robert Bo Golden with lighting by Pamila Gray and costumes by Y. Sharon Peng, who all make positive contributions. However, the sound design by Alan Chang is uneven, resulting in the loss of some lyrics and lines.

Choreography by Jeanne Batacan-Harper is fine. Choral director Joseph Murphy deserves recognition for the choir’s outstanding contributions.

Performances by the principals are generally good, especially by Altomare as Esmeralda and Hamilton as Phoebus, who act and sing well. O’Hara’s acting as Quasimodo is good, but he sometimes sings too loud.

Also noteworthy among the principals is Brian Palac as Clopin Trouillefou, the gypsy who serves as narrator.

Although the production is uneven, on the whole it works well.

Running more than two and a half hours with intermission, it will continue through Sept. 10 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City. For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411, Ext. 2, or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.