Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
This version is based on the Victor Hugo novel, utilizing the music from the 1996 Disney animated film. I found that film badly flawedin making it family friendly, in line with Disney branding, the story is almost incomprehensible. The stage version brings us much closer to the sweeping passion of the original Victor Hugo novel, and more than half the score is new for the stage version. Titled Der Glöckner von Notre Dame, the musical was successfully launched in 1999 in Berlin, Germany (in German, with a book by James Lapine), then brought to the United States (with a book by Parnell) as The Hunchback of Notre Dame in a co-production of La Jolla Playhouse in 2014 and Papermill Playhouse in 2015. Though well received, producers did not proceed with a Broadway production or even a tour. Instead, the musical was released to regional companies and continues to enjoy a good bit of popularity.
Artistic Director/director Rick Kerby fields a cast of mostly regulars, all at the top of their game. This production features a separate choir to give an added richness to the massed choral sound. Twenty members are listed, although I could only identify about 12 on stage at the performance I attended. Perhaps they rotate in and out. No matter, their presence is strongly felt. Alexander Zickafoose gives an emotionally rich performance as the deformed Quasimodo. At the top of the show he becomes the character right before our eyes via costuming and makeup, a stunning theatrical moment. Mr. Zickafoose has kicked around in a lot of ensemble parts in past productions, so only the title role in Peter and the Starcatcher prepared me for his performance here. Cory Woomert as our villain Claude Frollo dominates the stage with his rich bass and excellent acting chops. He brings a nice level of conflicted humanity in a part where there might not be any. I have watched him grow from the ensemble to multiple memorable leading roles, and I delight every time he racks up another. This is his finest performance, so far, but I am sure the best is still to come.
Ashley Figlow, new to Manatee Performing Arts Center but seen at other theaters often, plays Esmeralda, who truly feels for Quasimodo's plight. Her "God Help the Outcasts" is the highlight it needs to be. Brian Chunn returns (actually how can someone return when he has been in every main stage production this year except Annie?) as Captain Phoebus de Martin, in full vocal glory. He is Manatee Players' go-to guy for masculine leading men (Count Carl Magnus, John Wilkes Booth among many others). Brian Craft gives his best performance ever as Clopin Trouillefou, with strong singing and dancing and lighting up the stage whenever he is on it. Others offering nice contributions include David Addis as Jehan Frollo and general ensemble, Joseph Rebella (his flips, back and forward, wowed the audience) as Lieutenant Frederic Charlus, and Skylar Homan as Florika. I couldn't help noticing Noah Rodriquez in the ensemble (he has played named parts in the past) and I enjoyed his confident presence. The ensemble is one of the strongest ever seen on the MPAC stage.
Rick Bogner is music director, leading a five-piece ensemble. The score weaves together several styles, and Bogner keeps them nicely differentiated.
Ken Mooney provides sets and costumes. His biography states that he is "Resident Costume Designer for Feld Entertainment, Inc., in Ellenton, Fl." This organization until recently produced Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and multiple other traveling arena shows. The have an exemplary reputation in the entertainment industry, so when it was announced that they were relocating their operations center to this area I thought it would be good for the community. When we get to have such a brilliant artist working in our community theaters, I know I was right. Thank you to Feld Entertainment for allowing this. Mr. Mooney's atmospheric set brilliantly captures the medieval era church and functions equally well for the other venues. The costumes would not be out of place on professional stages. Joseph P. Oshry creates a dark moody vista with is lighting design, some of his best work, which is always on a high artistic level. All of this gives Rick Kerby the opportunity to make magic with his cast. He moves the story along with a firm hand, never a flaccid moment, and has choreographed to make his cast look really good, never pushing them beyond their abilities, although there are a number of fine dancers on the stage.
This version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame makes for a dark afternoon or evening, but in the end, it is a moving one. I highly recommend it to all and believe there are not going to be many empty seats during this run, after word of mouth spreads.
Manatee Players presents The Hunchback of Notre Dame, through March 4, 2018, at Manatee Center for the Performing Arts, 502 3rd Ave W., Bradenton FL. For tickets and information, call 941-748-0111 or visit manateeplayers.com.