CEDAR RAPIDS — Don’t go to Theatre Cedar Rapids expecting the Disney lite version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” It’s definitely Disney dark.
It’s also magnificent in the hands of artistic director Angie Toomsen, music director Janelle Lauer and the entire design and production team.
The show’s dynamic message of compassion unfolds amid thrilling music, glorious scenery, dramatic lighting, wildly imaginative costumes and top-flight performances onstage and in the orchestra pit. Invited audience members immediately lept to their feet at the end of Thursday’s final dress rehearsal. The show continues through May 26.
The Disney play is not the 1996 animated Disney movie, with its sanitized ending. In this retelling, no one rides off into a happily ever after life.
The stage version incorporates the music from the movie, but stays more true to Victor Hugo’s novel about the trials of Quasimodo, a disfigured young man who spends his days ringing the bells in the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral.
He has been hidden from the world since infancy by Dom Claude Frollo, a man haunted by his own demons, terrified of holy judgment but quick to judge everyone else.
A complex mix of contradictions, Frollo is Quasimodo’s uncle, guardian, teacher and archdeacon of the imposing Catholic cathedral in the heart of Paris. Far from a father figure, Quasimodo calls him “master” and cowers under his psychological stranglehold.
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Mic Evans embodies Quasimodo with childlike wonder, tempered by an intense shyness born of isolation. His only companions are gargoyles and statues of saints, which come to life, bringing much-needed flights of fancy as they offer advice to their friend.
While Frollo clearly is the show’s villain, Kehry Anson Lane allows glimmers of vulnerability to pierce through Frollo’s emotional armor.
The first scene sets up their back story, then fast-forwards to Jan. 6, 1482, the Feast of Fools day in which the gypsies are allowed to celebrate in the city center outside Notre Dame.
Quasimodo longs to break free from his stone prison and experience a world he has seen only from his balconies. Confessing this desire to his uncle, Frollo warns him that he will be shunned and shamed because of his “monstrous” form. Quasimodo sneaks out anyway, setting into motion a series of tragic events.
The gypsies who initially embrace him, end up mocking and beating him. Themes of violence, lust and sin follow in his wake. And by the end of the show, he has poured molten lead on the citizenry gathered outside the cathedral. Other characters meet some pretty horrific fates, as well. However, the violence is highly stylized and should not induce nightmares in older children. It’s definitely too intense for the “Little Mermaid” crowd.
(I did find the ending confusing, since I wasn’t sure exactly who had died — especially when all the actors returned to the stage for the epilogue.)
Compassion is perhaps the overriding theme, and tweens, teens and adults will find the production highly engaging and entertaining, as well as a monumental reminder of the need for kindness, inclusion and tolerance.
Younger audiences will be especially enchanted by the colorful, magical world of the gypsies. Dawson Paine Gosch leads his people with bravado as their king, Clopin Trouillefou.
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But it’s Marita May who emerges as their star. She is the epitome of grace and inner beauty as Esmeralda, the young gypsy woman whose outer beauty has bewitched Frollo and Phoebus (Sage Spiker), the handsome young captain of the cathedral guards. Her kindness toward Quasimodo has stirred unfamiliar longings within him, as well.
No good ever comes with that many suitors.
Perhaps the most magnificent threads weaving together all the pathos and plotting are the grand and glorious sounds finessed and led by Lauer onstage and in the orchestra pit.
The cathedral choir, mostly confined to the shadows of the two-level choir loft, surrounds the actors and action with a power seldom heard onstage. All the leads and company players shine brightly through the many moods enhanced by S. Benjamin Farrar’s dramatic lighting that casts the colors of the majestic stained glass window throughout the scenes.
Massive wooden structures by Broadway designer Alexander Dodge were rented to create the cathedral’s interior. The stage view is especially bittersweet after the recent fire that devastated the real Notre Dame.
Fittingly, Theatre Cedar Rapids has created a monumental homage to the history and mystery of this grand symbol of sanctuary.
If You Go
• What: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”
• Where: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
• When: 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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