by Velika Maxam
Wavestage Theatre Company
Directed by Sarah Langford, Caileigh Kyle & Rhiannon Langford
Choreographed by Caileigh Kyle, Musical Director Brad Barnham
Its very title elicits imagery of a compelling figure, a monster perhaps, cast away in a Parisian cathedral, vilified and feared. This age-old tale of The Hunchback of Notre Dame continues to pique one’s curiosity and plays on our sensibilities in a modern age. A novel originally published in 1831 (Notre-Dame de Paris), its author Victor Hugo summons us in to the streets of 1482 Paris, where the narrative of Quasimodo (half human) unfolds under the guise of the Renaissance. This poignant tragedy of one man’s deformity, isolation and torture, and deep love for the Gypsy girl Esmeralda who pities him, has manifested itself in time from novel to silent film, to comics, stage plays, musicals and famously Disney animation. Our continued fascination for such a dark and moving tale of love, acceptance, piety, and humanity has been stunningly elevated in its latest musical theatre incarnation by the Wavestage Theatre Company, a story woven together by an arrangement of musical numbers that will leave you deeply moved.
This illustrious apologue centres itself around Quasimodo, disfigured, and confined to his sanctuary in Notre Dame Cathedral who eventually is deafened by the loud ringing of bells. From there, we bear witness to the local townspeople who discover him and brand him the ugliest man thereby beginning the audience’s journey of empathy, and compassion where we explore our own capacity to judge, and ask ourselves what is normal, what is a monster? Carry forth the beauty and kindness of Esmerelda, the wickedness of antagonist Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame whose misguided care for abandoned Quasimodo, leads him to a life of isolation and loneliness. Think Botticelli’s trial fresco in the Sistine Chapel of The Temptations of Christ, which was executed also in 1482, the year the story is set, to truly grasp the feel, sound and colour of Wavestage’s portrayal of this piece.
The casting of this production must be mentioned first and foremost because, every element of characterization in this piece has been fulfilled whether it is that of a main character, or a village pauper depicted in the ensemble. This cast has delivered and maximized their roles with a devotion that is extremely clear. At no point did the energy wane, nor did any of the actors appear to be still struggling with levels or finding their legs which was refreshing for an opening night production. Each of the performers must be applauded for bringing it and making me believe that they believed in this story so resoundingly well.
It was such a joy to witness that level of determination and ease in an actor’s performance. It even presented itself in the engagement of the choir who left me wondering was I an audience member of musical theatre or sat in one of the great cathedrals of the world during mass, perhaps Notre Dame itself. Musical Director Brad Barnham is to be commended along with Choir Director Elaine Choi for creating an aura and mood through the often dramatic choral accompaniment of this tale. Positioning the choir off stage in the right and left balconies further draws us in, fully immersing ourselves in the tale of good and evil that unfolds, inviting us in to witness Quasimodo’s plight.
As the entire company played a strong role in the very art of story telling that we seek, and compellingly so, it is of course Quasimodo, our focus for whom we search. We seek him out, still curious as to what does he look like and sound like. Nicholas Cunha shifts so precisely between the deformity in his stature as Quasimodo, to his deaf accent to then removing all those elements when he sings to us, and speaks to us from deep within his heart, in an aim to allow us during song to understand how he sees himself, human and tender within and not as the ‘ugly’ bell-ringer he’s depicted to be. Nicholas transitions it so well that we immediately develop empathy for his plight, which is really one we all carry everyday, who are we on the inside, versus what the other sees on the outside.
With David Smith’s realization of the Archdeacon Frollo, we have a pining early on that he is a benevolent figure. Charged with the care of the orphaned Quasimodo, we hope he protects the disfigured infant child, but instead he becomes god like and authoritarian by sequestering him in the name of sparing him shame and judgement. Frollo manifests in Quasimodo a misplaced love for the Archdeacon for taking his care, a selfish intention which eventually transforms him into an antagonist who projects his own evil onto the other characters in the story, a development that David unfurls ever so cleverly and at a pace that evokes even more mercy for Quasimodo.
Yet our struggle with judgement in this piece doesn’t end there when we meet a band of gypsies who are stereotypically portrayed and branded as thieves. In their midst, is gypsy dancer Esmeralda portrayed beautifully by Alyssa Curto, who rises as the essence of beauty and kindness, when she bravely offers water to Quasimodo after his town flogging. Alyssa ascends the characterization of Esmeralda so gracefully that she becomes symbolic in this story and epitomizing love and benevolence.
The story weaves itself and all sewn together flawlessly through dance, song and performance originally developed by Disney Theatrical Productions. Choreographer Caileigh Kyle has brilliantly defined each musical number to reflect the essence of the story within that scene, without losing our focus, and engaging us even deeper. Costuming by Rhiannon Langford, a major task as a period piece, and with the size of this company, served to discern each character from the other so well and one scene from the next. With a minimalist set, the costumes alone served to transport us and carry forward in the story.
Artistic Director, and co-Director Sarah Langford along with co-Directors Caileigh Kyle and Rhiannon Langford, are to be applauded for bringing together a piece that enchantingly transports the audience from modern day to fifteenth century Paris. The elements of good and evil, love and hate, judgment and acceptance are all translated so well throughout the story with their choice of staging, lighting, and again casting. The feel and look of this production immerses itself deeply into the era, with the use of lighting hues of deep red, orange, yellows and often blue sweeping across the minimalist stage, all very reminiscent of shades and hues of the Renaissance art of the time.
This is musical theatre entertainment at its finest, by a company that grasps the essence of excellence in performance and storytelling. Wavestage Theatre Company is to be commended for raising the bar, and re-telling a tale of religion, judgement, shame, love, kindness in a way that was not only a delight to the senses, but leaves us asking, what is a monster, what is acceptance, what is it to be human. This story certainly has not lost its essence, and still holds up more than a century and a half later through this incredible production.