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The Hunchback of Notre Dame: The Regals Musical Society - Review by Tracy Payne

Church bells ring from behind giant stained glass windows, and sounds of thunder and rain foreshadow impending ominous events. It may have been familiarity with a Disney movie that drew the audience to this production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Still, I’m not sure that they were ready for the emotional roller coaster that they were about to encounter through the beautiful music and moving performances of The Regals Musical Society’s production.

Anthony Halpin’s set design created an awe-inspiring scene, utilising lighting, projection and mammoth set pieces to recreate the appearance and atmosphere of the Notre Dame Cathedral. This provided the foundation for Anthony Halpin and Flynn Crewes (Co-Directors) to weave what seemed to be a multifaceted production into a seamless theatrical experience for the audience. As the curtain opened, the bells rang out, the choir appeared in the eerily lit undercroft, adding harmonies to a Latin chant that accompanied the entrance of hooded congregants carrying candles and ushering the audience into the solemnity and mystery of Quasimodo’s world.

However, despite the title, this story is not just about the Hunchback. The audience has much to learn about this era, this place and the timeless complexities of human nature. To guide the audience, the story is narrated by a talented ensemble of Gargoyles, Congregants and Choir. Delivering plot clarification and insight through a well-timed stream of chorus and solo lines, the energetic cast guides the audience as they seek to explain the intricacies of the characters and relationships that undergird this dark tale. While the individual energy, commitment and talent of each performer were evident, it was how the cast worked together that genuinely impacted the audience and brought the story to life. The performers are listed in distinct groups within the program but they worked as a true ensemble cast, moving between roles, collaborating and cooperating to narrate the story, add movement, offer beautiful harmonies and maintain the production flow through the choreographed repositioning of props and set pieces.

The hard work of the ensemble cast and the stunning set provided a platform for the lead performers to shine. And they truly did shine. Clopin, the Gypsy King, was brilliantly brought to life by Jonathon Holmes, who managed to synthesise the character’s cunning, humour and physicality with moments of sensitive emotion and flawless vocals. Joshua Houston’s portrayal of Phoebus was equally as impressive as he convincingly portrayed the contradictory qualities of a complex character. Houston balanced bravado with humility and loyalty with rebellion, endearing himself to the audience as a sympathetic hero. His solos were impressive, but his duets with Alyssa Bishara (Esmeralda) were goosebump-inducing highlights.

The iconic roles of Esmeralda, Frollo and Quasimodo bring a degree of expectation from the audience. Their characters are known, their signature songs are well-loved, and there are certain expectations regarding their appearance. Kudos to the directors and costume coordinators (Tara Holloway and Katie Griffiths) for upholding audience expectations while also allowing room for their performers to offer unique interpretations. Alyssa Bishara was engaging as the heroine Esmeralda. Her passionate prayer in “God Help the Outcasts” was moving, and her interactions with Quasimodo were lovingly sweet. I was particularly impressed by the incorporation of AUSLAN once Quasimodo's hearing impairment was revealed. However, the depth of emotion reached in Act II will be the quality most remembered from Bishara’s performance - powerfully compelling vocals and heartbreakingly realistic acting. Equally as compelling was Declan Dowling as the villain Claude Frollo. His stage presence was as commanding as his voice, and he aptly captured Frollo’s character arc from troubled man to torturous villain with an admirable sense of fear and loathing. “Hellfire” is a pivotal moment for the character of Frollo, and Dowling’s portrayal is hauntingly powerful with his enthralling vocals and emotive expression heightened by the red-lit stage and mystical appearance of Esmeralda to reflect his tortured thoughts.

Undoubtedly, though, the show's star was Regals newcomer Daniel Wakeford. His youth matched the innocence of the reclusive Quasimodo; however, the maturity of his performance and the power of his voice belied his years. Wakeford’s portrayal balanced the insecurities and strength of the character while offering sincere moments of humour and insightful representations of personal heartbreak. His solos were powerhouse performances and well deserved the ovation received from the audience.

As emotionally engaging as the story may be, it is the music of The Hunchback of Notre Dame which keeps the audience spellbound. While many of the songs are familiar, derived from the Disney animated film, Alan Menken’s score is, by no means, simple. Emma Snellgrove (Musical Director) and Jonah Eskander (Assistant Musical Director) have ably led the cast and orchestra to master the scope of Latin chants, gypsy melodies, ballads, and stirring anthems. Credit must also go to the vocalists - soloists and ensemble - who demonstrated remarkable vocal dexterity and range. There were so many “wow” moments that I lost count.

Having seen a few productions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, one unique element in this one was the extended use of dance. Choreographed by Emma Harrison, the Gypsy numbers were energetic and well executed, and the skills of the featured dancers were on display in carefully crafted ballet numbers accompanying the most emotive moments.

The Production Team and Cast of The Hunchback of Notre Dame have created an authentic theatrical experience that stirs both the heart and the mind, which earns 4.5 Cathedral bells.

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