Victor Hugo certainly knew how to write poignant stories about miserable people. And thankfully, brilliant musicians seem to enjoy taking these stories and creating something as poetic and moving as their source. Music makes even the saddest tales a little sweeter – more digestible too, many would say. This is certainly the case with Dennis DeYoung The Hunchback of Notre Dameon stage at the Skylight Music Theater until June 12.
DeYoung is a founding member and lead singer of Styx. Knowing this, the dots connect perfectly hearing what it was created for Hunchback. It’s a rock opera, full of powerful ballads and even a lead role that seems inspired by DeYoung’s frontman tone.
For those who don’t know, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a French Gothic novel by Victor Hugo published in 1831. It is the story of Quasimodo, disfigured from birth and destined to ring the bells of Notre-Dame Cathedral. His benefactor is Frollo, a devout but troubled clergyman. In the royal guard is Captain Phoebus, and the object of the affection of the three men is Esmerelda, a Roma dancer. Esmeralda lives in the Cour des Miracles, the slums of Paris, alongside mother figure and fortune teller Mahiette. The leader of their troop is the thief Clopin.
I’m not going to go deep into the story, but keep in mind: Hunchback takes place in medieval Paris in a society that does not hesitate to ridicule and vilify those who are deemed different. Be warned that the show includes depictions of suicide, murder, and the gallows. If you were hoping for a Disney-fied version, you won’t find it here – this Hunchback has no wise gargoyles.
What it is, however, is stunning, extraordinary and masterfully staged. The Skylight has outdone itself with this season finale. Artistic director Michael Unger says he dreamed of putting on DeYoung’s Hunchback for 28 years. His affinity for the material is a delightful story, so be sure to read about the origin of Unger’s love for this musical, and his friendship with DeYoung, in your show schedule.
When I say the Skylight has outdone itself, it’s no exaggeration. The caliber of talent, vocal power, triple threats – I don’t know the last time there was such a cohesive cast at Skylight. Their shows and castings are always great, but this one is superb.
We first hear Kevin Anderson as Frollo with “Who Will Love This Child.” Anderson impresses right away with her powerful voice that sounds like she could easily stand up to a rock band. He plays the tormented priest with a Javert-esque quality. Should we see the good in him, pity him, despise him? His portrait is well balanced.
Understand now, I found Anderson’s voice to be excellent. But just when you think “Wow, Anderson is killing him!” comes Ben Gulley, bringing down the house with “In My Silence”. Gulley’s big, beautiful voice is so overwhelming that it would be unfair to compare the two. Both are great on their own, but Gulley could hang on to the best of world-class Broadway, opera, etc. The magic he does as Quasimodo stirs up a feeling that will stay with you. (Isn’t it the best?)
As Esmerelda, Skylight welcomes Alanis Sophia, a bilingual songwriter and musician who recently reached the Top 16 on season 19 of american idol. Just as Esmeralda should, Sophia shines and dazzles with both her presence and her powerful voice. Her voice is somewhere between pop and Disney princess, in an authentic and splendid place all its own.
Esmeralda’s mother figure, Mahiette, is played by returning favorite Janet Metz. Unsurprisingly, she turns this supporting role into gold. Her singular voice and energy elevates every stage she graces. As Romani leader Clopin, Seth K. Hale is another former Skylight alumni. He brings an essential lightness and a spark of humor to Hunchbackwith an awesome voice to boot.
Rounding out the main cast are the king’s men, handsome Phoebus (Joey Chelius) and guard Gudule (André Sguerra). Hailing from Milwaukee also returning to Skylight, Chelius is a perfect Phoebus full of charm and swagger with a voice to match. Sguerra’s incredibly deep register impresses at every turn, making Gudule the kind of brute you love to hate.
If all that wasn’t enough, the whole thing brings an astonishing wall of sound, full of strength and charisma. And dancing? They excel at it too. Lisa Shriver’s choreography is a whirlwind of radiant color and life, filling the stage without ever feeling cramped. It is a stunning achievement.
It also doesn’t hurt that Alyssa Ridder’s lush, vibrant costumes and Adam Koch’s towering stage design really keep the eye engaged throughout. Hunchback is both intimate and breathtaking – a real gem of an experience you won’t soon forget.