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Talent Machine’s Hunchback of Notre Dame

Follow these young actors through sadness and joy to the fever pitch of the climax

          The Talent Machine Company has done it again. The teens behind The Hunchback of Notre Dame are actors, dancers and singers as impressive as their juniors, who captivated me in 42nd Street.

          The Hunchback of Notre Dame opens with the story of two orphan brothers: Claude (Sam Ellis) and Jehan Frollo (Noah Jaccard). Claude rises in the world while Jehan experiences the world. On his early deathbed, Jehan pleads with his brother, now an archdeacon, to raise the child of the late gypsy woman he loved. Claude names the deformed baby Quasimodo, or half-formed, and isolates him in the cathedral of Notre Dame.

          As the years pass, the hunchback (Ronan O’Toole) longs to be part of the world outside of the cathedral. He gets his chance at the Feast of Fools. There, he meets Esmeralda (Alyssa Stanford), an enchanting gypsy newcomer who treats him with kindness and dignity. Esmeralda also captures the attention of Claude and Captain Phoebus (Michael Parlett). Claude’s contradictory efforts to eradicate the gypsies while pursuing Esmeralda drive the story to its intense, burning conclusion. While this play uses the songs from the Disney film, it does not shy away from tragedy, and the end is not a happy one.

          The stage has been transformed from 42nd Street earlier this summer. On the stage now are grey arches painted to look like stone, ladders up to the small second level and a solid grey background piece with holes meant to emulate church windows. The second level is a special vantage point, mostly used for characters looking on from afar.

          Before the play began, two wood doors stood at the front of the stage. As the play opened, they were moved to the side, inviting viewers into Notre Dame to see the events unfold. Those doors were closed again only after the final note of the play had been sung, as the lights went down.

          Color plays a role of its own in this production, with most important characters having an associated color. Esmeralda is red. Ghosts, such as the recurring presence of Jehan, dress in white and gold. By contrast, Claude dresses in dark colors or black cassocks. For the HellFire scene, where he is overcome with lust, his cassock has noticeable red edging. He appears in white in the final scene, giving us no doubts as to what his fate shall soon be. All who wear white are on death’s door, white being the primary color of Esmeralda and Phoebus’ prison clothes.

          The lighting also has a powerful impact on the mood of the scenes. The stage lights dim when the mood becomes tense, as the scene where Claude confronts Quasimodo. Red lighting indicates danger, while soft pink lighting signals a tender, romantic mood. Yellow lights show playfulness and joy, and pale blue spotlights single out characters overwhelmed by loneliness.

          Of course the actors themselves give life and excitement to the show on the stage. They dance with artful effortlessness, an illusion that must have taken time and practice. Sign language supplements some of the spoken words, with the signs for friend and mother appearing at meaningful scenes.

          Throughout, the actors make spectacular use of body language and facial expression. Stanford makes Esmeralda’s God Help the Outcasts heartfelt. Claude’s HellFire shows the torture he undergoes in his own mind. Every emotion on stage feels genuine, and every action is convincing. They lead you through sadness and joy to the fever pitch of the climax.

          The show’s final question — What makes a monster, and what makes a man? — will leave you pondering after the grand doors of Notre Dame have closed.

 

FSa 7:30pm, Su 2pm, two and a half hours, with a 15-minute intermission. Key Auditorium, St. John’s College, Annapolis, $15, rsvp: www.talentmachine.com.