Sandwiched between two Victorian Gothic buildings on the University of Toronto Campus, the Isabel Bader theatre is a modern building that presents a stark contrast between old and new. It is a fitting metaphor for a 21st century play adapted from a 90s Disney movie based on a 19th century novel about Medieval Paris.
The Wavestage Theatre Company’s production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame opened to a sold-out audience last night, and we were lucky enough to be among them.
Victor Hugo’s novel, published in 1831, was written during an era of great political uncertainty in France, during a post Napoleonic era in which monarchist traditionalists were attempting to undo many of the democratic reforms that were made during the French Revolution. The Disney adaptation was released in an era in which there was much less political and social uncertainty. In a strange way The Hunchback of Notre Dame is more relevant to current events than it would have been just a short time ago.
References to the political commentary found in this story can be seen in the set and wardrobe design. While the pair of structures that flank the set are clearly intended to evoke the two towers of Notre Dame de Paris, their bare wooden framework evokes another iconic structure that occupies a pivotal role in Parisian history – the guillotine. The gargoyle costumes, which more closely resemble plain off-white monk’s robes, recall the costumes seen in The Handmaid’s Tale. Since the gargoyles also do most of the set changes, it could be said that these are the hardest working monks in show business. The fact that the robes largely obscured the actors faces also allowed them to function as background performers when they weren’t taking centre stage.
For those not familiar with the classic tale, the story follows a young boy named Quasimodo, who was born disfigured and taken in by his uncle, Archdeacon Frollo. Quasimodo spends his life confined to the towers of Notre Dame, looking down at the people below day after day, longing to be one of them. Finally, on the day of the Feast of Fools, Quasimodo decides to venture out into the world to join in the celebration, where he meets the beautiful and kind-hearted Esmerelda, and falls in love. Unfortunately, Quasimodo soon discovers that the dangers his uncle warned him about life outside the cathedral are all too real.
At times the performance was, unfortunately, difficult to follow, due to inconsistent sound levels. While the music could always be clearly heard, the dialogue was usually at a lower volume, often making it difficult to understand what was happening. The plot itself is closer to Victor Hugo’s original novel than the Disney movie, and involves plenty of romance, intrigue, betrayal, and tragedy. Because of the twists and turns the story takes and the fact that many of the darker elements of the story are presented through dialogue rather than song, the low volume was at times somewhat frustrating.
Overall the cast performed extraordinarily well, with many doing double duty as both gargoyles and congregants at different points in the play. Nicholas Cunha performed admirably in the starring role as Quasimodo, displaying a broad emotional range and convincingly playing a character with a severe physical disability who, despite the cruelty he experiences throughout the story, never loses his youthful sense of hopefulness. Despite his character’s speech impediment, he had a great singing voice. (Vanessa — “Boy can hold a note for DAYS”).
David Smith’s performance as Frollo was fittingly hammy. It was fortunate that the set design was minimalist in nature, since it didn’t give him much scenery to chew. It suited the role of a larger than life villain perfectly, and if he had a moustache, he would have been twirling it. (Vanessa — “This role wasn’t played by Degrassi star Pat Mastroianni?”). In classic incel fashion, Frollo declares his love for Esmerelda (despite saying he hates all “gypsies”), threatening that if she refuses to be with him, he will sentence her to death, where she will burn in hellfire for eternity.
Alyssa Curto’s turn as Esmerelda, the brave and independent “gypsy” woman who steals Quasimodo’s heart, was spellbinding. Her stunning beauty and powerful voice, combined with her fluid and sensual dance moves, would make anyone swoon. It’s certainly not hard to believe that she has three men vying for her affections. Alyssa’s credits include the lead role of Belle in Beauty and the Beast and the title role in Carmen.
Conor Murphy was expertly casted as Captain Phoebus de Martin, the handsome and dashing love interest of Esmerelda. (Vanessa — “Am I allowed to say I want him to strangle me with his thighs? The wardrobe department really knocked it out of the park with those tights”).
The choir did an outstanding job of adding layers and texture to each song, making you feel as if you really were in a sacred place of worship in the heart of Paris circa the late 1400s.
The minimalist set was well-used, and the images projected on the screen at the back of the stage helped to add colour that otherwise would have cluttered the set or been absent altogether.
You’d have to be “Made of Stone” to not enjoy this incredible performance put on by the talented volunteers at Wavestage Theatre Company.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is playing now at the Isabel Bader Theatre, located at 93 Charles Street West – there are only a limited number of tickets left for the two remaining shows – tonight (Saturday, July 7th) at 7:30 pm and tomorrow afternoon (Sunday, July 8th) at 1 pm. Tickets are $38 for Adults and $28 for Youth and Students.
For more information, please visit http://wavestagetheatre.com/hunchback