|The iconic gypsy tambourine dance by Eryka Lynne Waller as Esmeralda in|
Sketch Club Players' "THE HUNTCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME."
Plays Nov. 1-17, 2018. Jason Mangano directs.
The new "Hunchback of Notre Dame," which opened last weekend at Sketch Club Players in Woodbury, N.J., is peppered with tunes from the Disney animated classic, but is a far cry from saccharine animation. Advertised as a "new musical" based on the novel and "songs from the Disney film," I'd argue this is more of an opera (I mean that sincerely, not pretentiously, as I'm no expert in that stuff) and I was caught rather pleasantly off-guard by this wonderful epic tragedy that left my heart both broken and full in its conclusion. In other words, audiences are in for a darker, substantial, fulfilling treat.
Though Sketch Club's theater is cozy, somehow this small team of less than 20 actors, open as a Chamber Choir echoing through the stone corridors of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, 1482. The novel was written, in part, as a criticism against destroying Notre Dame's ancient architecture, so it's uniquely fitting, in this musical, to have the cathedral's gargoyle monks be such a poignant character, functioning equally as Greek Chorus, the bell-ringer's imaginary friends, and the bell-ringer's Chekhovian gun -- Chekhov once suggested if we see a gun in Act One, it will be fired in Act Three, and, boy, does it fire away in Hunchback's "Finale Ultimo."
Director Jason Mangano has woven together an outstanding, operatic journey with an intimate, select group of professionals, strikingly malleable to acting, singing, dancing, and functioning as a beautiful chorus of storytellers, while never eclipsing one another. This is an almost insurmountable task, and, Mangano, and mother Pat (the show's superlative Producer), balance the art and leadership it takes to create something so acutely polished and entertaining. Notably, the brilliant sound was created by these actors under the fantastic direction of West Deptford-based music teacher Jill Bradshaw. She and Mangano are fierce.
Almost each chorus member is revealed to be a lead or supporting character; the first we meet is Dom Claude Frollo, played with an admirable mix of control and abandon by the accomplished Dominic R. Santos. Frollo is head of the church and caretaker of the hunchback bell-ringer, a deformed child abandoned by his brother Jehan, played by the sterling, rising talent, and vocally impressive Jason Wade.
Santos's voice is a true basso profundo here, carrying the darkness of the production and the darkness internal to his character's sexual deviance toward Esmeralda and control of Quasimodo.
Esmeralda is introduced in her iconic colorful dance, distinctively choreographed by the director, and executed flawlessly by the blissfully present Eryka Lynne Waller. Some of Esmeralda's recklessness is replaced by a composed stillness, proving great mastery of craft by Waller -- her "God Help the Outcasts" is soulfully poetic. Yet, Waller never compromises Esmeralda's edge, standing up for herself against Frollo, and, ultimately, paying the price.
It goes without question, our break-out star here is Bill Zeoli as Quasimodo. His hunchbacked portrayal of the deformed bell-ringer is alarmingly transcendent, swinging like the irons in the Notre Dame belfry between his accented, gravelly physical speaking voice (his character is hard-of-hearing and forced into seclusion by Frollo), and a youthfully innocent internal voice used to speak to his imaginary friends, the gargoyle monks. That second, internal voice, is greatly complimented by his rhapsodic ability as a tenor, his intimate moments dulcet, his passionate moments euphonious. Zeoli's "Made of Stone" is complexly extraordinary. And on top of it all, his emotions bleed through with his acting, as the death of Esmeralda thrusts him into a murderous, climactic exchange with Frollo, where we're revealed the gargoyle monks as less imaginary friend, more internal demon a.la. Fosse's original "Pippin" chorus.
Despite the new darkness freshening up this classic, David Fusco jovially provides a bit of comic relief as Clopin Trouillefou, leading "Rest and Recreation" in the Parisian Feast of Fools. Fusco really shines here, and, also, in an unforgettable turn as King Louis. Also adding to the comedic relief, a hilarious performance by Cullen Flanagan as a beheaded-gargoyle form of Saint Aprodisius, blazing with careful wit through "Flight into Egypt."
Also, exceptional supporting work by Harrison Pharamond as Captain Phoebus de Martin, the love interest of Esmeralda who shares her feelings with his superb baritone work in the duet "Someday." Pharamond goes through a wonderful arch as stalwart, charming soldier, to outcast. In a small, but enjoyable featured moment, I adored Emma Bennett's gypsy Florika, an impressive mezzo soprano.
I could go on praising. To be frank, the Mangano-led production has distinguished itself in first-rate casting and accomplished execution of the material, allowing his leading players their meritorious moments center-stage, but never compromising the ensemble as the true treasure of this production. It doesn't try to show off. It tells the story. And it stuck with me long after I left the theater into the rainy night.
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. MUSIC BY ALAN MENKEN LYRICS BY STEPHEN SCHWARTZ BOOK BY PETER PARNELL. ALL PERFORMANCES AT THE SKETCH CLUB PLAYERS. TICKETS $25. NOVEMBER 1-17, 2018. PRODUCED BY PAT MANGANO. MUSIC DIRECTION BY JILL BRADSHAW, STAGE MANAGED BY JEANETTE CARDEN, SET BY SHANE YOUNG, SOUND BY TIMMY KUHN, LIGHTING BY JUSTIN MEAD. STARRING BILL ZEOLI, ERYKA LYNNE WALLER, DOMINIC SANTOS, AND HARRISON PHARAMOND. ALSO STARRING DAVID FUSCO, EMMA BENNETT, JASON WADE, CULLEN FLANAGAN, TEREASA ZUBAK, AARON WACHS, JARED BRITO, ELIZABETH FINN, JENNIFER WEIR, AND DANCE CAPTAIN LEAH JACOBY. DIRECTED & CHOREOGRAPHED BY JASON MANGANO.