Hoopla

'Hunchback of Notre Dame' rings through the centuries at Theatre Cedar Rapids

STUDIO RESERVED

Gargoyles (Samie James, left, and Hannah Spina) keep watch over the cathedral in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” coming to Theatre Cedar Rapids from Friday (5/3) to May 26.
STUDIO RESERVED Gargoyles (Samie James, left, and Hannah Spina) keep watch over the cathedral in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” coming to Theatre Cedar Rapids from Friday (5/3) to May 26.
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In theater, timing is everything.

The timing has never been more right to stage “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at Theatre Cedar Rapids.

“Our world is badly in need of radical compassion,” director Angie Toomsen said, noting that is the overall theme of the Disney musical which opens Friday (5/3) and continues through May 26.

Then the cast and crew joined the world watching in horror as flames tore through the magnificent Paris cathedral on April 15. Mic Evans, who plays the title role of Quasimodo, was especially stricken.

“I had a hard time convincing myself that my house didn’t just burn down,” Evans, 25, of Cedar Rapids, said, “because you get so attached to material you’re in. I did extensive research on the cathedral when the casting came out. ... I’d Google it or take a virtual tour while I was reading the book.”

He also was taken aback by the “odd timing,” and by “watching a piece of history burn down.”

“I never thought that would happen in my entire life,” he said. “And now, the selfish thing is that I can say that I was playing Quasimodo when Notre Dame burned down. It’s one of those history-making things where you get goose bumps by how the storylines converge.”

Many times in the Disney musical, various characters refer to the cathedral as a “sanctuary” or a “safe haven,” added female lead Marita May, 27, of Cedar Rapids. “It’s just a true parallel to how people feel when they walk into Notre Dame, if they’re religious or not. This sanctuary of feeling safe, this religious, otherworldly experience they have there. That’s something I thought of — how important it was to the people of Paris and how much of a heart is attached to that for them.”

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She plays Esmeralda, the gypsy girl who shows radical compassion to the disfigured man hidden in the cathedral’s bell tower for most of his life.

May and Evans were thrilled to learn that plans immediately were underway to rebuild the historic structure that took shape between 1160 and 1260. It was desecrated during the French Revolution in the 1790s, and Victor Hugo’s novel is credited with creating a resurgence of interest in restoring the structure in the mid-1800s.

As the recent fire played out on the world stage, Theatre Cedar Rapids staff began considering its own response to the devastation of the cathedral whose timbers and stained glass window are reflected onstage.

“It became immediately clear that there was already enough monetary help coming in, including a $5 million contribution from Disney, who owns and licenses ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ the musical,” Toomsen said.

“It became even clearer that the best thing we can do is to continue telling the story originally created to help save a deteriorating Notre Dame. We hope the cathedral will be restored to new glory but, more so, we dedicate this story to those in our own country and around the world whose lives have been forever touched by intolerance and judgment.”

Toomsen described the story, set in 1482 Paris, as a “powerful cautionary tale about judgment and fear of the ‘other.’ Frollo (the archdeacon of Notre Dame) is deeply afraid of people who don’t think and live the way he does. He is also a man who has deprived himself of his own true nature to the point that he externalizes his self-loathing onto others.”

Quasimodo is his deceased brother’s son. He’s charged with raising this disfigured infant, and hiding him in the bell tower “is akin to the ways (Frollo) has banished the parts of himself he’s deemed ‘monstrous.’” Toomsen said.

More conflict arises when the now-grown Quasimodo decides to go outside during the gypsies’ Feast of Fools, where he feels he might fit in. There he meets the beautiful Esmeralda, who has also enchanted Phoebus, the new captain of the cathedral’s guards, as well as Frollo.

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When Esmeralda refuses Frollo’s advances, he “misuses his considerable power to destroy lives,” Toomsen said.

Evans acknowledged this is one of Disney’s darker tales, but Toomsen is quick to point out the light that shines through, calling it “a story of compassion, hope and heroism.”

“Quasi’s imprisonment in the bell tower is tragic,” she said, “but he has managed to create a joyful world of his own. When he experiences cruelty outside Notre Dame, he also experiences his first taste of genuine compassion. Esmeralda sees Quasi through the eyes of love and respect, and that gives him something to fight for.”

That’s what drew Evans and May to auditions back in January.

“I always have found her character to be a beautiful example of somebody who fights for what’s right,” May said, “and also, she’s an alto, which is a rare find in musical theater, so I was really pumped. ... I definitely had my sights on it when they announced the season last year.”

May, who teaches at the Cedar Rapids Day School downtown, also is a classically trained violinist, and will add her instrumental spin to Esmerelda.

Evans, a theater major at the University of Northern Iowa, put Quasimodo on his bucket list.

“I didn’t want anything else in the TCR season except for this,” he said. “He’s joy. He’s just joy. He’s not as socialized as other people are. He stays in his tower, not always by choice, but he finds this way of approaching the world that’s wholesome and joyful, and like everything is a new experience.”

It’s a physically demanding role, and while Evans will wear a prosthetic hump on his back, he also will pin one arm to his side, and transform his gait with a lower center of gravity. His stance will change, from terrified to relaxed, according to the people with whom he’s interacting, and according to the posture he needs for singing. “When he’s by himself, he stands up straighter,” he said.

Alone so much of the time, Quasimodo talks to the gargoyles and statues around him, and in true Disney fashion, they spring to life, singing and dancing.

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“We have definitely worked to find the joy and whimsy and love at every turn,” Toomsen said, striving to make it “a friendly show where even the scary moments are fantastical enough for kids.

GET OUT!

WHAT: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”

WHERE: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids

WHEN: Friday (5/3) to May 26; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday

TICKETS: $22 to $50, TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or theatrecr.org

EXTRAS: Recommended for ages 10 and up; contains darker, more mature themes than most Disney stories

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