Got any plans this weekend? Perfect. Go see a musical. And make it The Hunchback of Notre Dame at the Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville.
Aurora and Theatrical Outfit’s joint production of the musical adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame based on the songs from the Disney movie and classic Victor Hugo novel of the same name opened mid-July at Aurora and will transfer to the Rialto Center for the Arts in September. It’s beautiful. It’s dark. It’s perfection. Despite its “Disney” tag, there’s nothing fluffy Disney or kid-friendly about this wonderful musical. At its core, it is a true adaptation of Hugo’s book, representing harsh realities of living in a broken world.
Whatever you do, don’t miss The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and here is why.
1. It’s basically the movie on steroids.
The Hunchback movie has always disappointed me. It brought us some of Alan Menken’s very best music coupled with a genre-ambiguous story that sits homeless between depressing and happy ending-driven. The songs were fantastic, eagerly awaiting an expanded score and overhauled book. Enter the 2014 stage adaptation at La Jolla Playhouse. With a book by Peter Parnell and about a zillion extra songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, this new Hunchback ditches the wishy-washy attempt at child appeal and leans boldly into a genuine take on this dark, sad story. More songs. More backstory. Richer plot. Huge kudos to Aurora/Theatrical Outfit for choosing a rock solid musical.
2. “Top of the World,” “In a Place of Miracles,” and many more new tunes.
The 10+ added songs- many more if you count the frequent Latin choir background- bring a fresh wholeness to the score. Like Disney’s good stage musicals, the extra tunes give audiences a new favorite song from a musical they thought they knew so well. You’ll leave the theatre with “Top of the World” in your head and really might cry over “In a Place of Miracles.”
3. That set though!
For those who watched the La Jolla production, Aurora’s set will look familiar. Designed by Shannon Robert, the whole stage is the interior of Notre Dame itself, complete with a painted floor and stone statues of saints (don’t worry- I hate myself for that alliteration as much as you do). But better than La Jolla’s, Robert ingeniously depicts Quasimodo “gazing at the people down below” by using a freestanding staircase that easily swivels about the stage. With no suspension of disbelief, the audience often sees Quasi high atop a church tower overlooking Paris, especially effective in “Out There” and “Top of the World.” As an added bonus, nostalgic Disney fans get to see this Quasi perform his signature parapet slide which, as ’90s Disney VHS tapes remind us, appeared in every preview for Hunchback ever.
4. Themes on themes on themes.
Hunchback is largely plot-driven, taking the audience through a neverending sea of emotions. These are evoked through the inventive direction of Justin Anderson as he pulls out many poignant themes, including the comparison between Quasimodo and his stone gargoyle friends (virtually unexplored in the La Jolla premiere), the power of those who are physically weak but emotionally strong, and of course the line that appears in both the first and final song, “What makes a monster, and what makes a man?”
5. The hardest-working ensemble in the world.
You’d think there were 40 people in that cast. Throughout the whole show, the ensemble is ubiquitous- on stage as characters, off-stage singing in Latin as a church choir, sometimes townspeople, sometimes gypsies. Oh and sometimes gargoyle puppeteers. Discussing what a tragedy it is that Hunchback has yet to premiere on Broadway, one cast member jokingly told me, “Well I can see why! Who wants to do all this eight times a week for months? It’s exhausting!”
6. Oh hey Lowery Brown, where have you been all my life?
As captain of the guard, Phoebus, Lowery Brown comes close to stealing the whole show. His stirring vocals particularly during “Finale” coupled with his commanding presence secure him in the ranks of Atlanta’s best. It begs the question- where have I been, that this is the first time I’ve seen this incredible talent in action?
I’d love to have been a fly on the wall for the moment the creators of the La Jolla production decided how to handle the gargoyles. My best guess is they shrugged and said, “Meh, let’s just throw some people in grey robes and call it a day.” Were they gargoyles? Were they just saints? Lol honestly, who knows. Aurora/Theatrical Outfit’s production looks the issue square in the face and solves it. With puppets. This design is strongest during “Made of Stone,” as Quasimodo has all but lost hope. One by one, the puppeteers lay down their puppets, showing a harsh comparison between the gargoyles’ immobility and Quasimodo’s defeatism.
8. The unstoppable choreography of Ricardo Aponte.
Oh y’all, Hunchback sees Ricardo Aponte’s choreography at its finest. Composed mostly of songs sprinkled with dialogue- think The Phantom of the Opera, but shorter and with an actual plot- Aponte was busy. His stellar melding of various dance syles drives home the idea that the outcast gypsies are a melting pot of nomads from many cultures. His work brilliantly enhances the story rather than merely making a pretty spectacle to look at. The characters don’t just dance because it’s a moral imperative for musicals. They dance because that’s part of who their characters are, a rare approach that is refreshing to see right here in our city.
9. Julissa Sabino, the only Esmeralda.
You think you’ve seen Esmeralda, and then you see Julissa Sabino’s interpretation, and everything changes. She takes on the resilience for which the character is so well known, but she adds a distinctly feminine gentleness and quirky affectations that bring Esmeralda down from a macho, invincible gypsy to a woman who can admit her imperfections without letting them hinder her. She never sacrifices kindness for strength. Can we just go ahead and hand Sabino that Suzi Bass Award? Please and thank you.
10. Haden Rider, my new favorite Quasimodo.
As Quasimodo, Rider tackles the interesting challenge of playing a man with a strong heart but a deformed, weak-looking body. With his whole being, he distinguishes so effectively the difference between the Quasimodo the world sees and the true Quasimodo in his head. We see him transform for the duration of his solos from a man with a physical impediment and raspy voice into a man with a strong posture and stunning voice. Rider’s tenor vocals are simply unmatched. He delivers “Out There” with ease, even with strep throat (as he told me was the case the first time I attended the show). Frankly, it’s an exhausting process to watch. And he does it magnificently.
You got your tickets yet?
In short, go see the show. As someone who has attended Atlanta theatre for years, I can firmly say this is the best local production I have ever seen. It’s a spectacular musical, and there could not possibly be a better version than Aurora/Theatrical Outfit’s.
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Photo credits: Daniel Parvis