SMITHFIELD – As presented by the Four Seasons Theatre Company, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a glorious triumph.
After working together on an animated version of the Victor Hugo classic for Disney Studios, musical genius Alan Menken and Broadway icon Stephen Schwartz set out to adapt their collaborative efforts for the stage in the late 1990s.
When it proved difficult to translate a nearly 1,000-page romantic gothic tragedy into a play that audiences could sit through comfortably, the inventive pair hit on the ploy of reducing much of the original novel’s narrative into musical vignettes woven into “The Bells of Notre Dame,” the play’s main and recurring theme.
That wise decision allows the Four Seasons huge and also hugely-talented choir to become the narrators of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Giving largely unseen ensemble performers such a critical task might be problematic for some theater companies, but not here.
The 32 members of the Four Season choir meet that challenge with powerful, soaring voices that often blend into spellbinding homages to Gregorian chant.
Combined with the singing of the on-stage performers, those voices make The Hunchback of Notre Dame an amazing musical spectacle.
Under the direction of Kody Rash, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a distinctly ensemble production. But its heart and soul is still Nathan Allen’s compelling portrayal of the deformed Quasimodo.
Allen skillfully lifts his character out of mere stereotype by creating a tragic hero who is not so much tormented by his handicap, but rather by conflicting desires to explore the world on one hand and to hide from it on another.
Daven Richie offers an equally nuanced performance as the lecherous archdeacon Frollo.
As the villain of the piece, Richie gets to chew up the scenery a little, but his self-righteous characterization is still thoroughly convincing.
Lorelle Frank is sensational as the doomed gypsy dancer Esmeralda, the sole focus of the frustrated affections of practically every man on stage. But who could blame them?
Ms. Frank’s vocal performances are wonderful, especially her duets with Nathan Bohman as Phoebus, the captain of the Cathedral Guards.
Despite its roots in a cartoon, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is largely faithful to Hugo’s grim original source material.
The multi-level, single set by Lineset Design and Fabrication is strikingly effective at contributing to the musical’s somber mood. Dramatic lighting and special effects by Nikayla Nielsen also add to this spectacle.
During the curtain call, which drew a standing ovation on Saturday, the entire on-stage cast threw a gesture of acknowledgement to the unseen choir performers. They richly deserved it.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is something of a departure from the Four Season’s previous steady diet of family-friendly fare. There’s swordplay and realistic stage combat; sexual overtones; and finally Esmeralda being burned at the stake. Some parental guidance is definitely required here.
Additional performances of The Hunchback of Notre Dame are slated at Sky View High School in Smithfield from Oct. 10 to 15.