The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Book by Peter Parnell. Blackout Theatre Company. Pioneer Theatre, Castle Hill. May 19 – 27, 2023

There are goosebumps upon goosebumps and it isn’t the cold winter air. The chill in the air is a foreboding feel; shadows on a dimly lit stage; shadowy figures; haunting melodies. 

It is The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This is Darkened Disney. 

Expect the awful side of humanity: religious extremism, racism, sexual predators, brutal treatment of minorities to throw a few out. It isn’t a show to skip along to with an expectation of  butterflies and glitter cannons. 

The story revolves around three men of Notre Dame - Claude Frollo (Joshua Rogers ), Quasimodo (Matthew Herne) and Phoebus - how their lives entwine and are eventually torn apart. It floors me that this is even Disney.

Quasimodo, the hero, so beautifully and sensitively played by Horne as the grown child hidden amongst bells, deemed by his uncle as too ugly for the world, locked away. It is painfully sad when you realise his playmates are merely his imagination, reflecting an inner dialogue of a lonely man. Statues come alive in his mind’s eye only. We see Herne switch between two different versions of Quasimodo, his time alone changes as one with a limited body and voice. How the world sees him. Herne gives a brilliantly moving, compelling performance and you will need tissues, especially during “Made of Stone”.

Hi uncle - Claude Frollo is not a typical villain. It is a complex, layered role with a subtle descent into fanatical madness. The depth Rogers has created complicates our desire to detest him. He is such a powerful Frollo and he absolutely commands the stage, terrifyingly. Vocally he is stunning - watch for the showstopper “Hellfire”, as Frollo ascends through the church and enjoys the power that it brings.

Phoebus is the third of the men in this story and his meeting with Frollo is at a point when we are not sure of either character; Frollo on edge but not quite toppling and Phoebus, good guy or not? As the story lurches forward Phoebus and Frollo parallel into hero and villain when both fall in love with the same woman, gypsy Esmeralda (Dylan Hayley Rosenthal). Phoebus chooses a genuine love while Frollo delights in his sin of falling in lust with forbidden fruit. His obsession propels a terrible chain of events, driving the city into a nightmare. 

Rosenthal shone in “God Help the Outcasts”, her raw vulnerability and passion leading it into yet another highlight. Her performance was soft and kind but fierce and powerful throughout the show. The jail scene was heartbreaking. 

Congregant ensemble cast switched between statues, Greek chorus and featured roles expertly and at times provided some lighter moments, allowing the audience to breathe as did the Gypsies with all the colour and charisma, led by Clopin the Showman and of course featuring Esmeralda. The Gypsies provided an opportunity for Irene Toro to unleash her wonderful talents with her choreography. 

There is gritty stuff in this show and the performers really had to dig deep. I don’t think there was a cast member on that stage who didn’t have to stretch themselves to give such convincing performances. Well done to drama coach Ruth Newell for her support.  The whole cast was a joy to watch producing a polished event worthy of the biggest stages.

The backdrop for the action is John Hanna’s multipurpose set. Notre Dame, always there watching over her city is depicted by staircases and pillars, her bells hanging high above the stage. The choir are housed on a lower stage, at times interacting with the action on stage as part of a crowd scene but for the most part a still presence, except when they let out some glorious vocals and then, what a treat. Hanna has combined all the best parts of previous set designs, looked at what worked and used it. It is genius. Something Blackout does particularly well is to use projections and animations - I don’t just mean a picture, I mean animations. One thing that impressed me was as Paris burned - keep an eye on the screen for that.

Beneath the darkness is a beautiful haunting score, combined with some big songs - the choir do a lot of heavy lifting with glorious sounds filling the theatre. That would be the goosebumps I mentioned first up. The goosebumps come back several times when the choir is involved, particularly in the entr’acte. MD Koren Beale makes a stage appearance conducting her masterpiece. A musical like this is not one without the musical team. MD’s Beale and Alvin Mak led perfectly, while Kieran Beale mixed the show, doing a phenomenal job to bring together a big orchestral sound along with, at times, 40 singers, blending superbly.

Katie Griffiths’ costume design plot was the icing on the already stunning snow, reminiscent of the movie and just the perfect fit.  

So, million dollar question. Do you take your kiddo? I’m going to have to say - think on this one. If they are used to theatre and concepts beyond Frozen, maybe. The Hunchback of Notre Dame leans into the novel more so than the family cartoon. That said, I took my 10 year old and it opened up some great conversation about bullying and harassment, diversity and acceptance. So yes, there are scenes where a younger person might want to hide under the doona and not watch, but I felt a bit that way also as a grown up, tears streaming down my face. There is also a long Act 1 to consider, so be well fed or buy snacks from the canteen with an essential trip to the bathroom

What directors Cierwen Newell and Luke Quinn have created along with a massive team makes a sure-fire hit for Blackout. This is 5 star entertainment - I dare you to see just how damn good community theatre can be.

Nicole Smith 

Photographer: Maria Gorelik - Light Up Photography

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