Skylight Soars With ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’

Potent music by Dennis DeYoung of Styx, big cast, great voices and period atmosphere.

By - May 23rd, 2022 03:13 pm
(l. to r.) Alanis Sophia (Esmerelda), Ben Gulley (Quasimodo) and Kevin Anderson (Frollo) in Skylight Music Theatre’s production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame running May 20 – June 12, 2022. Photo by Mark Frohna.

(l. to r.) Alanis Sophia (Esmerelda), Ben Gulley (Quasimodo) and Kevin Anderson (Frollo) in Skylight Music Theatre’s production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame running May 20 – June 12, 2022. Photo by Mark Frohna.

On the surface, Dennis DeYoung, the fabulous lead singer and main composer for the group Styx, a power ballad and keyboard favorite in rock circles in the 1970’s, has stepped far away from those Chicago roots in the Wisconsin premiere of his long developed musical version of Victor Hugo’s novel set in the 15th century and known today as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

But maybe not that far away from Styx. Though his songs are specifically weaved into a melodramatic character study (author Hugo was fixated on the cathedral itself along with this parable of how the highly feudal society picked on the deformed, the abandoned and the lower classes like the gypsies) the songs are always the centerpiece – elongated high notes, theatrical lyrical lines, music that can rise to a grandiose fever pitch, the same qualities that made Styx memorable.

Songs are DeYoung’s centerpiece — the musical was first fashioned decades ago, when Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera were all the musical rage. The driving long-held and modulated notes with hints of choral harmony – delivered by a large cast and a topnotch hidden orchestra with synthesizers under Eric Svejcar– create a landscape of sound that mesmerizes the audience for the first two hours as the character interactions unfold.

To DeYoung his impressive melodic scales are the key to letting the classics flourish, along with the absolute need for first class voices to float that high, that frequently and that strong,

And they sure do in this production. The master casting particularly imports two outstanding male leads.

Ben Gulley is Quasimodo, the hunchback rendered deaf by the cathedral bells. His character has the deformed strength of 10 men, and he sings with the strength of 10 tenors. Equally gifted is high baritone Kevin Anderson as Monseigneur Claude Frollo, the priest DeYoung refuses to make an easy villain, more like a misled Shakespearean character who starts out holy and then blames God for his sinful thoughts and violent fall from grace.

The object of his fall and the blameless victim is the teenage gypsy dancer Esmeralda, played by the lovely Alanis Sophia of “American Idol” fame. Fortunately, the part requires only the simplest acting from her. The songs — “Paradise” and “This I Pray” – favor her stronger lower belting register. Esmeralda is briefly misled by the handsome shallow Phoebus, commander of the guards played with appropriately thoughtless seductiveness by Joey Chelius. His presence drives Frollo berserk.

Those most familiar with the story from the Charles Laughton portrayal of Quasimodo in the 1939 movie have to acknowledge that DeYoung is taking a different and sometimes historically truer path. The misshapen makeup-heavy Laughton could barely grunt in his deafness while Gulley sings beautifully and with great power. Nor does the story have a typical villain, nor did the novel, since Frollo starts out as the epitome of medieval piety before he descends into murderous self-deception, and Quasimodo and Esmeralda are the real victims joined together out of innocence rather than the lust that surrounds them.

This simplified through-line not only fits the times, but forgives the lack of word play or sophistication in DeYoung’s lyrics – no Sondheim verbal fancies here, just occasional homages to the medieval roots. It keeps the composer at the core of the work, sometimes shortchanging potential character depth for Esmeralda and other players.

Anderson as Frollo has some of the most memorable songs, “Who Will Love This Child” and “If I Die,” dealing with his anguished turn toward ugliness with the full weight of the medieval Catholic ideals upon him. Gulley’s Quasimodo is constantly turning toward the light with protracted phrases that stretch his high notes to enormous cheers from the patrons in outings like “In My Silence” and “Beneath the Moon.”

Needed sarcasm and effortless singing range are provided by Janet Metz as Esmeralda’s mother figure.

Perhaps to prove he can also handle the large group demands of musical theater, De Young provides the big busy cast – monks, soldiers, dancers, beggars and street people, usually led by the penetrating bass notes of Andre Sguerra as the always nasty sergeant – with lusty ensemble antics (“A Votre Service,” “Swords of the King”). Choreographer Lisa Shriver has provided an entertaining mix of Broadway dance steps and medieval overlays, while costume designer Alyssa Ridder stuns with her eye for traditional costumes and fast-change shortcuts.

DeYoung — with longtime friend, Skylight Music Theatre artistic director Michael Unger at the helm – has added gargoyles to this ideal setting, the Cabot Theatre. There, based on the original designs of the eminent Adam Koch for another Hunchback production, enormous set pieces have been loaded in to simulate the bells, looming doors, revolving scaffolds and one huge stained-glass window of Notre Dame (not historically accurate but certainly conveys the mood), with lighting designer Jamie Roderick almost making the spotlights weep in unison with the audience. Technically, this is an impressive job.

Unger has kept the focus and the pace on his wonderful lead singers, whose sheer power to enthrall make a trip to the Skylight until June 12 essential. You will seldom hear singing this good.

However, the last half hour (after the first two hours) still needs work, as the musical cannot decide between drawn-out attempts at spectacle versus a clean musical dispatch of the lead characters. It becomes a hodgepodge and calls attention to the repetition of devices in DeYoung’s songs, plus the weakness of the lyrics. For those reasons, I’m not sure the musical is ready for the wider exposure it clearly intends with the quality of the casting.

By that point of the show, however, the company has the audience embracing its mix of humanity and music.

Hunchback of Notre Dame Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

One thought on “Theater: Skylight Soars With ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’”

  1. kmurphy724 says:

    We watched this Sunday – an amazing display of talent and entertainment.

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