I’m sure almost everyone remembers the first Disney movie they ever watched and that feeling of being completely transported into the story by the music and the magic. If you grew up in the 90s like I did, then you probably grew up watching arguably some of Disney’s best work—perhaps that’s why so many millennials are self proclaimed Disney Adults? Once you experience the grand, sweeping, and, dare I say, theatrical, melodies of Alan Menken, it’s hard not to start a lifelong love affair with their work. I know this is true for me, at least, so when I was given the opportunity to experience Blackout Theatre Company's NSW amateur premiere of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I jumped at the chance. While the original Disney movie often gets overshadowed by the likes of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, it definitely deserves its moment in the spotlight, and after seeing Blackout’s production, The Hunchback of Notre Dame has shot very quickly to the top of my favourites.
From the very first phrase sung as the curtains opened, combined with the stunning visuals of the set and the projected stained glass windows, I had shivers. Immediately, I was transported to the beautiful cathedral of Notre Dame. This sense of awe continued throughout the entire production. John Hanna’s simple yet stunningly effective set and the professional-level projection design by Cierwen Newell and Kieran Vella work together seamlessly to take the audience on a journey through the different scenes and locations that feature in the story, all the while grounding the cathedral as ever present, sometimes imposing and sometimes breathtaking and beautiful.
A breathtaking set is nothing without breathtaking performances, though, and this production was chock full of talent. The lead actors were all absolutely flawless and deserve so much more praise than I can fit into one review, but I will attempt to outline the highlights. Occasionally, a performance of a character is so special that it sticks with you long after the show has finished, and Matthew Herne’s portrayal of Quasimodo was that performance for me. Not only were his musical vocals stunning (Out There had me tearing up, and Made of Stone had me all out sobbing!), but the physicality and acting vocal work from Herne were completely impressive. The shift from when Quasimodo was talking to his "friends," the statues and gargoyles around the cathedral, to Herne’s hoarse, disjointed vocal work and a withdrawn, slumped-over physicality when interacting with others was so impressive. To be able to slip in and out of these two sides of Quasimodo’s characterisation is something only a true professional at the top of his craft can achieve. One of my favourite moments in Herne’s performance, though, was the quiet moment in the background where he realised Esmerelda and Phoebus were in love, and the heartbreak was palpable.
When I used to watch the original Disney movie as a child, I never understood why Esmeralda would choose Phoebus over Quasimodo, but the portrayal of Phoebus in this production made it clear. There was such a charming sincerity to the character, and the chemistry between Phoebus and Esmerelda was tangible. Dylan Hayley Rosenthal’s portrayal of the Gypsy Esmerelda was everything a Disney heroine should be, showing that there is strength in kindness. God Help the Outcasts is one of my favourite Disney songs of all time, and Rosenthal’s performance of this song was truly gorgeous—not only with a stunning vocal quality, but the emotional resonance of the piece was superb.
Johnathon Holmes, who portrayed Clopin, the king of the Gypsies, brought an infectious energy to the stage. Holmes’ performance was expertly balanced between the comical and whimsy of Clopin and the darker (even dangerous) edge of the character. Clopin’s darker edge, though, has nothing on Claude Frollo, and Joshua Rogers was not scared to explore the depths of darkness inside Frollo with his portrayal of the character. It is easy for an actor to fall into the trap of making the villain in any story very one dimensional, but not only did Rogers exceed the expectations of the rich and commanding vocal range demanded by the score, he brought a true depth of real human emotion to the role in his portrayal of the struggle between faith and temptation. Rodgers lives in the role and is truly frightening, particularly in the second act.
While I’d like to mention each and every one of the congregant ensemble by name and gush about their individual performances, I simply can't, as this review would end up far too long, but I simply cannot overlook mentioning them as a whole. The Congregants served several purposes in the production: narration in the form of a Greek chorus, the statues and gargoyles that come to life only in Quasimodo’s mind, and as countless smaller characters and the ensemble. Each and every performer playing a congregant was engaging in their own right while also being able to work as one entity as the Greek Chorus. The physicality in their frozen poses as statues and gargoyles, paired with the flowing grey robes, evoked the exact feeling of the stone statues you’d expect to see in Notre Dame. While I could say this about almost every element of this production, the congregants were a true highlight for me.
The gypsy ensemble cast brought warmth, colour, and all the vibrancy of a Disney movie to the stage and were a thorough joy to watch. They also perfectly led Irene Toro’s world-class choreography with infectious joy. It also needs to be said that the Gypsy cast portrayed the Romani people with care and empathy. Toro’s expertise could not be questioned, as the movement and dancing by the cast created stunning and emotive imagery, and her use of slow motion to highlight certain parts of the story was incredibly effective. In particular, Esmeralda dancing in slow motion as the three leading men (Phoebus, Frollo, and Quasimodo) experienced their attraction to her for the first time felt like we were being let into a private moment inside the characters minds, creating intimacy between the performers and audience. The performers movement of set pieces and large props in and out as part of the action was seamless and allowed the story to flow without interruption. In particular, the use of actors turning platforms mid-scene to change the perspective of what the audience were seeing added an extra layer of engagement and was effective in highlighting the focus of the scene; for example, when the platform was switched during the King of Fools ceremony, it highlighted the way in which the crowd responded to seeing Quasimodo and made the moment even more shocking for the audience. The final part of the ensemble is the choir. On stage for the entire production, they add so much to the overall sound. You can really tell when they join in songs they create a beautiful wall of sound. Hats off to Kieren Vella for managing to mix the audio of a large band piped in from another room, a large cast, and a choir.
Katie Griffith’s costumes and makeup were absolutely spot-on. The colour choices and design fit the essence of the beloved movie characters while not appearing at all cartoonish or as though the performers were in Disney cosplay costumes. Making the costumes recognisable but also unique and realistic to the time and place. The decision to not disfigure Herne’s face and instead use smeared black paint was highly effective and allowed the audience the pleasure of unlimited expression from Herne. This device also allowed for truly powerful imagery at the culmination of Quasimodo’s character ache when the entire cast smeared their faces with black paint.
Directors Luke Quinn and Cierwen Newell have both shown their incredible ability to capture the true emotional integrity of a piece of theatre and produce evocative imagery on stage. The stagecraft they have both harnessed to create something so visually stunning and deeply moving is no mean feat, and they have produced an exceptionally moving piece of theatre, which is, at its essence, everything theatre should be. Musical directors Alvin Mak and Koren Beale have done an outstanding job. Mak's conducting of the band expertly negotiates the sweeping score, and Beale has a special moment at the start of Act 2, when the audience got to see her in action conducting the onstage choir, creating beautiful harmonies that transported the audience back to Notre Dame in the 15th century after intermission. The creative team and the entire cast and crew have created magic on stage that both evokes the feeling of light and joy of a Disney musical while also endowing the show with the true gravity it deserves and leaning into the darker themes that underpin the story.
An absolutely well-deserved 5 out of 5 bells of Notre Dame, and not a show to be missed!
Photos Courtesy of Light Up Photography