Waukesha Civic theatre's 'hunchback' a monster production
By Marilyn Jozwik
Published Nov. 5, 2017
Several years ago, Waukesha Civic Theatre presented one of community theater’s most challenging productions, “Les Misérables.” The show was first rate and a huge success.
WCT has taken another Victor Hugo novel, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and presents the fairly recent musical version. This is an equally ambitious production featuring a 19-member choir, a 14-piece orchestra and a cast of 19, including five main characters plus 14 performers playing an assortment of characters such as gypsies, saints, gargoyles and Parisians.
Add to that Michael Talaska’s handsome set -- featuring the centerpiece rose window of the cathedral and a trio of huge bells hanging from the ceiling -- some creative lighting (Chris Meissner) and well-designed costumes (Sharon Sohner, Harmonie Baker and Michael McClure) plus Teresa Alioto’s well-executed choreography.
On top of that is a fine quintet of lead actors – headed by the stellar performances of Ryan Peter Dziuba as Quasimodo and Brant Allen as Dom Claude Frollo – and an outstanding supporting cast. WCT has pulled off another blockbuster.
Directed by Mark E. Schuster, who also directed WCT's "Les Miserables," this version includes Alan Mencken-Stephen Schwartz songs from the Disney animated version, as well as a handful of new ones. Audiences may recognize Menken’s distinctive style from Disney films such as “Aladdin” and “Little Mermaid” In some of the tunes.
Monster or man?
While this show does not have the drama or the interesting characters of “Les Miz,” there is plenty of meat to the story, most notably in the question: What makes a monster, and what makes a man?
It begins with Frollo, an archdeacon at Notre Dame Cathedral in 15th century Paris. Frollo’s brother, Jehan (Phil Stepanski), has taken up with a gypsy woman who dies shortly after giving birth to their deformed son. Frollo reviles gypsies (“How it fills me with disgust to walk among them,” he sings), but after Jehan also dies, he is left to raise the lad he calls Quasimodo.
Frollo banishes Quasimodo, whose deformity includes a hunched back, facial disfiguration and slurred speech, to the cathedral, where his sole duty is to ring the bells. He becomes deaf from all the bell ringing and reads lips. “You are deformed and you are ugly,” Frollo tells him when he wishes to venture out.
But Quasimodo, who carries on conversations with the gargoyles and statues in the cathedral, is convinced by them that he should see what’s outside, especially during a holiday called the Feast of Fools. Just as Frollo warned, he is tortured and rebuked by the revelers. But a lovely, kind, dancing gypsy named Esmeralda (Andrea Ehlinger) rescues him from further insult and he returns safely to the cathedral.
A dangerous love triangle of sorts emerges as Esmeralda and Quasimodo form a tender, innocent bond, while Frollo has lustful feelings toward the beautiful gypsy. Esmeralda is repulsed by the hard-hearted Frollo, especially when he tries to get her to stay with him so he can allegedly save her soul. Allen performed this scene masterfully, as the usually harsh Frollo softened his voice in a most seductive, lecherous way saying, “You could stay with me, in the cathedral.” If this were a teen movie, you would hear Esmeralda say, “Ew, Yuck!” at Frollo’s unwanted advances. Before she goes, he warns her, “I could be a friend to you, but also a terrible enemy.”
The triangle adds one when the new cathedral guard Phoebus (Kevin Gadzalinski) throws his hat in Esmeralda’s ring, but Frollo can’t shake his thoughts of the beautiful Esmeralda, even when he condemns her as a witch and a sorcerer.
Frollo holds a trump card, seeking her out and giving her one last time the option to stay with him or face terrible consequences, even as he builds his case against her.
In the end, we see just who the monster is, and who the man is. We also see how unfair and unjust it is to label a whole segment of the population, as Frollo does with the gypsies, a lesson that resonates today.
Dziuba as Quasimodo made quite a grand debut on the Waukesha Civic Theatre stage, hunkering about the stage, often cowering at this uncle Frollo, who expects strict obedience and whom Quasimodo addresses as “master.” Dziuba’s slurred, childlike speech conveyed his character’s disabilities and childlike innocence perfectly. In Dziuba’s hands, he is truly a sympathetic character. But his finest moments were when he sang -- without impediment – in a booming, soaring voice that sustained its power and pitch through to the end of tunes like “Out There,” where he imagines the world outside his sanctuary.
Allen’s Frollo compares to Javert, another Victor Hugo character he played at WCT in “Les Miz.” I overhead an audience member say that he plays the self-righteous and misguided person so well. Indeed. Just as with Javert in “Les Miz,” Frollo’s quest for what he believes is right, in an exaggerated state, becomes evil. Allen was fully committed here, raging with angst and anger at times, at other times becoming fatherly as he tried to explain what was best for Quasimodo. He, too, displayed a strong voice to handle the powerful music such as “Hellfire,” in which Frollo questions God’s “making the Devil more powerful than man” as he tries to rationalize his desire for Esmeralda, whom he considers a sorcerer.
Ehlinger’s Esmeralda danced beautifully in the “Rhythm of the Tambourine,” part of the wonderfully staged Feast of Fools scene, described in the song “Topsy Turvy” this way: “Once a year, we turn all Paris upside down. Every man's a king and every king's a clown.” Ehlinger has an effective, deep singing voice, perfect for her character, and interacted with Quasimodo with sincerity and tenderness.
As Phoebus and Clopin, Gadzalinski and Matthew Northey both did well, but Gadzalinski could have created a more commanding presence with his character. He also flattened out a bit on his big vocal endings.
There were some really nicely rendered smaller characters here, including Stepanski’s Jehan and Gwen TerHaar’s Madame. As St. Aphrodisius, Jonathan Bartos delivered with a pure tenor voice in the “Flight into Egypt” scene.
There were a number of big production scenes that featured an outstanding choir, including a handful of sopranos who handled those notes well above the staff effortlessly.
Orchestra Director Josh Parman and Music Director Yeng Thao handled all the music wonderfully. It was especially good to see the orchestra in the corner above the stage, as opposed to behind, allowing a musically live experience on a grand scale.
If you go:
Who: Waukesha Civic Theatre
What: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”
When: Through Nov. 12
Where: 264 W. Main St., Waukesha
Tickets/Info: 262-547-0708, www.waukeshacivictheatre.org