Playhouse ‘Hunchback’ Has Dings and Dongs

By J.E.Ballantyne Jr.
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio ­– As the Youngstown Playhouse nears the end of its 97th season,  they presented the area premier of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” on Friday night. Most people know the Victor Hugo novel and the classic motion picture starring Charles Laughton. This is the stage musical version with a book by Peter Parnell and music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, respectively.  It has tones of both “Les Miserable” and “Sweeney Todd” throughout.

The evening got off to a rather sour note, in my book, when I realized that canned music would sub for a live orchestra. I have never liked canned music in live theater.  After all, it’s “live theater” and that usually includes a “live” orchestra. Yes, it gave the music a rich, fully orchestrated sound but it also had that recorded sound. With a live orchestra the conductor is able to make adjustments during a show.  With canned music that can’t be done.  Often during the evenin,g individual solo lines from ensemble members were totally inaudible because the canned music was too loud. There is no substitute for a live orchestra and I couldn’t get past that for the rest of the evening.

Things looked brighter, however, when you ignored that problem.  This show is a monstrous endeavor.  Few community theaters are equipped to handle this one. Directors Trevail Maurice Smith and Kiara Jones have put a true spectacle on the stage of the Youngstown Playhouse.  In some cases, it is truly touring quality — in others, not so much.

The cast is headed by Landon Talbert as the Notre Dame bellringer, Quasimodo (pictured at top).  It took me a bit of time to buy Talbert as the deformed main character.  He is constantly referred to as a “monster” but his appearance did not quite mirror that description. With costuming and physical presence that gave him his deformity, the lack of facial make-up hardly made him the hideous vision they described. But that aside, Talbert soon won me over with stunning vocal ability and the creation of a character that conveyed the poor tortured figure from the Hugo novel.  Even when he isn’t speaking and not the main focus, he is difficult to ignore as every move communicates the agony of his plight. He excels in numerous numbers but particularly in “Out There.”

Opposite Talbert as Esmeralda is Desirée Hargrave.  Hargrave is as equal to her task in her role as Talbert.  Her acting talent is only outdone by her exquisite vocals. She presents a strong-willed Esmeralda with ease. As with Talbert, her commitment to the role is 150% as she swoops the audience up and they are in her corner every step of the way.  Vocally she has the audience in the palm of her hand with “God Help the Outcasts” and “Top of the World” (with Talbert).

Kaleb McFarland creates a truly slimy Frollo, the true villain of the piece, who uses his position as arch deacon of Notre Dame to console and threaten Quasimodo and Esmeralda to get what he wants. McFarland develops the character well from a seemingly in-control religious leader into an obsessed, almost maniacal tyrant.

Nathaniel Ams plays a strong, likeable Captain Phoebus who gets caught up in the action upon meeting Esmeralda. His “Rest and Recreation” number early in Act I suggests some layers in the character that are revealed later in the show. Other notable performances were turned in by Ben Bogen as Clopin, Trevail Maurice as Saint Aphrodisius, and Michael Macciomei as Jehan.

Musical director Mazhorell Johnson has put together an ensemble of exceptional quality.  Strong vocal ability and great stage presence help the ensemble to serve many purposes in the show including talking statues and gargoyles. 

Set design by Leslie Brown, Jack Hanna and Sindy Hanna is first rate.  With action taking place predominantly inside the cathedral, the set is simple yet complex with moving wooden stairways and elevated platforms that expand the action both outward and upward. A large glass-like circle dominates the up-center wall and adds to the different looks. 

The three bells of the cathedral are extremely well done and match the enormity of the overall production. The only problem with them is that you have these three impressive bells that, when rung, produce a rather anemic sound. A much stronger resonance would have served them well.  And speaking of sound, the reoccurrence and annoying sound of feedback permeated the entire production from beginning to end.

Although there is no lighting design credit in the program, it looms very large in the production. From creating atmospheric effect to wondrous splashes of color, it helps the set become another character in the musical. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for operation of the follow spots. Follow spot operation was downright terrible. From failing to hit targets when needed to letting actors walk out of the spot and the spot not following, that portion of the lighting was downright embarrassing.

Special effects are rampant throughout the production and add a great deal to the show.  One of the most spectacular effects is when Quasimodo dumps moulton lead from the bell tower on the crowd below.  Using a technique from Japanese theater makes it a truly memorable moment.

Costuming by Brian Palumbo was first rate.  Period costuming can sometimes be a problem but Palumbo was right on target with everything and also added a great deal of color to the production.

 Even with the unfortunate “dings” which this production has, it is still a lavishly produced spectacle of which the Playhouse can be proud. I could not help but think while I watched the show about those people who started the Youngstown Players 97 years ago.  It has come a long way and how proud they would be if they could see what it has turned into. Put this show on your list for a remaining performance.

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Note: The Playhouse used to include musical numbers in their playbills for years, They have, for some reason, abandoned this practice. They need to pick it up again. Audiences like to follow along and see what musical numbers are coming up

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” will continue tonight, June 3, 4 at 7:30 and  May 29, June 5 at 2:30 pm

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