Encore Michigan

Dio’s ‘Hunchback’ is an extraordinary feat of stagecraft

Review April 06, 2019 David Kiley

PINCKNEY, Mich.–The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the 19th-century story by Victor Hugo, is a timeless piece. There are intertwined love stories. There is tragedy. There are themes of body image, transcendent love and compassion, and persecution. And, of course, there is evil. Hugo’s story is at least a literary cousin to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.

Back in the 1990s, Disney “Disneyfied” the story into an animated film. And it is that rendition on which the musical, now playing at The Dio Dinner and Entertainment, is based. This show did not make it to Broadway, but is now making the rounds in regional and even high school theaters. The Dio’s production is the third in Michigan in the last two years.

Cut down a bit in terms of the cast and scale to fit on this stage, the Dio’s production is a feat of stagecraft. Directed by Steve DeBruyne, who also plays the lead role, the co-lead of this show is Matthew Tomich, the Dio’s Technical Director who manages to transform this dinner-theatre stage into a plausible Notre Dame Cathedral.

Tomich is a master craftsman and designer, which demonstrated show after show at The Dio. The co-founder of the Dio created a “stone” cathedral backdrop that serves as the constant backdrop, allowing us to believe we are inside, outside and on top of the Paris cathedral.  The transformations are achieved by a constantly shifting arrangement of stain-glass panels maneuvered by the ensemble, as well as a movable “tower” and railing that represents the roof where Quasimodo lives. A second level to the stage serves as the top of the tower where Quasimodo rings the bells.

Haven’t read the story or seen any of the movies? Quasimodo (DeBruyne) is given his name, which means “half formed”, by his uncle and guardian. Quasi’s father died shortly after he was born, as did his gypsy mother. The baby is born with a twisted spine that forms a hunch. And the baby, and young adult Quasimodo, has a disfigured face. His guardian, a cleric named Frollo (Keith Allan Kalinowski), keeps Quasimodo bottled up on the roof of the cathedral ringing and looking after the bells to the point where the Hunchback goes deaf from the peals of the bells over the years. His “friends” to whom he confides are the gargoyles on the roof, who come alive in the show with the help of a terrific ensemble clad in stone grey gowns.

Quasimodo comes down from the tower during the Festival of Fools, and is jeered and pilloried by the Paris denizens. And low and behold, he captures the attention, and vice versa, of a beautiful, sympathetic gypsy named Esmeralda (Alaina Kerr).

Frollo forms an unhealthy attachment to Esmeralda, who also becomes the object of desire of Phoebus, the Captain of the Cathedral Guard.

DeBruyne, a self-described lover of Disney, excels at this version of Quasimodo, which is far different from the truly disfigured version played, for example, by Charles Laughton in the 1939 film. It would be unseemly, after all, to have a troll trying to sing the excellent Alan Menken (Beauty and The Beast, The Little Mermaid, Newsies) songs. DeBruyne is a pro’s pro when it comes to singing this kind of music, and he manages to infuse his character with the heartache of his character who is one of the few characters in the story is not a monster, despite also having the additional chores of directing and producing the show.

The cast DeBruyne chose to surround him never lets him down, and makes very complicated blocking and set changes work in such a way that you aren’t aware of how incredibly hard these actors are working. Kalinowski, always reliably solid in any role he takes on, nails his raging hypocrite and nasty-piece-of-work Frollo without making him a cartoon. Kerr as Esmeralda is luminous, and her vocals are consistently alluring. Isaac Orr in the role of Phoebus is suitably dashing and also comes though with strong vocals.

This is the first show done at The Dio that used pre-recorded tracks rather than a live orchestra or accompanist. The tracks are excellent, and Music Director Dan Bachelis has his hands full making the complex show and music work with 16 busy actors on stage.

The ensemble is striking, full of seasoned and trained pros who have comlex part singing to manage, numerous set and costume changes to execute and ferocious blocking chores on a tight stage. Marlene Inman, Gayle Martin, James Fischer, Jared Schneider, James Beauregard, Lydia Adams, Tim Brayman, Mitchell Hardy, Angela Hench, Hayden Reboulet, Quentin Fettig and Alexis Benson all deserve shoutouts as they play multiple roles including the anthropomorphic gargoyles that serve as Quasimodo’s friends and counselors.

Complexity is the word I keep coming back to with this production. But in a good way. DeBruyne, Tomich, Bachelis, choreographer Xavier Bush, Costumer Norma Polk, Prop Maser Eileen Obradovich and Assistant Director Anne Bauman put on a clinic here in how to stage a big show on a small stage. There was one noticeable shortfall on opening night when Frollo’s torch did not light at the point that Esmeralda is meant to be burned. Such things can be forgiven on an opening night of a show with so many moving parts and pieces. And it did not detract from an overall splendid evening and production that is still relevant more than 200 years after Hugo penned the story.

The ending of the story and the musical is touching. It is, indeed, one of the great love stories in all of literature. And there is a coda at the end of the show in which the actor playing Quasimodo (DeBruyne in this case) tells the audience about the two actual people on which the story is based–Quasimodo and Esmeralda. It is a wonderful ending sentiment.

We are all Quasimodo–all of us who are civilized anyway. Each of us has something about which a demented individual or an angry crowd will find fault and persecute us. The country seems divided between Frollos and Quasimodos with a lot of restless villagers swaying to and fro to one side or the other. The great stories never go out of style.

The Dio’s production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a wonderful experience.

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