.Cabrillo Stages a Hit!

A Classic Tale, a Resounding Success

As a veteran patron of Broadway and London musical productions, I was prepared to be hopeful about Cabrillo Stage’s ambitious new The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But I wasn’t prepared to be blown away by the critical mass of skill, creativity and brio assembled at the Crocker Theater on opening night.

But I was blown away.

Kudos to Artistic Director, Andrea L. Hart, whose debut season is already a smash. It took something more than mere nerve to choose a mid-19th century romance novel (merci Victor Hugo), spun through a Disney animated film and adapted for the stage 10 years ago.

The fit is perfect for Cabrillo’s high-wattage cast, directed with pin-point precision by Vinh Nguyen. The fit, ironically enough, is also perfect for this particular moment in time, where sensitivity is high to those once dubbed “outcasts.”

On an astonishing set—part medieval streets of Paris, part interior of the great Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame—we first meet the cloister full of singer/monks who finesse the soundtrack for the tale about to unfold. Lit with a flawless eye by Carina Swanberg, the epic Skip Epperson scenic design serves to move the action from confrontations with touring Romani, into the hallowed cathedral interior and high up into the bell tower where dwells the deaf hunchback Quasimodo (Juan Castro), kept out of sight by his surrogate father, the archdeacon Frollo (David Murphy).

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You don’t have to remember all of this, just know that the staging, the helpful use of head mics by the singers and the caliber of performance chops guarantees that you can hear every word, and keep up with the evolving story.

The action begins (swiftly!) in the cathedral plaza where festivities for the Feast of Fools are set to begin. The Romani (gypsies, in Hugo’s day) have come to town, singing, dancing and having their way with the gullible locals.

Led by the take-charge Clopin (Katherine Bonn), the “foreigners” showcase a lovely dancing girl, Esmeralda (Kristi Garcia), and here’s where the story really begins.
Esmeralda’s flashing-eyed beauty—and sensuous singing voice—catch the eye of three very different suitors: the deacon Frollo who narrates and sings much of the story arc, Quasimodo the disfigured bell-ringer and Captain Phoebus (Omar Alejandro Rodriguez), a swash-buckling veteran of the wars looking for a place to call home.

The tension in this highly kinetic production involves their growing attraction for Esmeralda. The deacon will try to bully her into his arms. And poor Quasimodo, whose only friends have been the stone gargoyles of the cathedral (who provide the confined bell-ringer with emotional support), gazes from afar.

But the real chemistry occurs between the soldier and the dancer, who fall tragically in love. Opening night’s duet between Garcia and Rodriguez was spellbinding.

There’s almost too much to like in this polished production, but the secret weapon might be the presence of an ensemble of a dozen singer/dancer/actors who move through the story, changing costumes and roles when needed, and all with A+ vocals and impeccable movement by Choreographer Brance Souza. Kudos tutti! Special praise for Juan Castro, whose honeyed tenor floats up to the very spires of Nôtre Dame. And for the versatile Mindy Pedlar, and for the compelling David Murphy who out-Jonathan Pryces Jonathan Pryce. And for sassy Katherine Bonn who steals her every scene.

Opening night’s full house soaked up the visual spectacle and the powerful singing, all kept on track by the maestro Michael McGushin and orchestra. The Hunchback of Nôtre Dame has it all—camaraderie, romance, longing, tragedy. It is exactly what live theater is all about. A company of inspired professional artists who succeed in fulfilling the dream, and surpassing our expectations. In some poignant moments, they brought tears to our eyes and at the electrifying finale, brought us all to our feet. To state the obvious: don’t miss it!

The Hunchback of Nôtre Dame—Cabrillo Stage 2023 Summer Festival Thurs-Sun, through July 30. cabrillostage.com

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