By JEBallantyne Jr.
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — As the Youngstown Playhouse nears the end of its 97th season, they presented the area premiere of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” on Friday night. Most people are familiar with Victor Hugo’s novel and the classic film 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 Miserables” and “Sweeney Todd” throughout.
The evening started on a rather sour note, in my book, when I realized canned music would replace a live orchestra. I never liked canned music in live theater. It is, after all, “live theatre” and usually includes a “live” orchestra. Yes, it gave the music a rich, fully orchestrated sound, but there was also that recorded sound. With a live orchestra, the conductor is able to make adjustments during a performance. With canned music that cannot be made. Often during the evening the individual solos of the ensemble members were completely inaudible because the canned music was too loud. There is no substitute for a live orchestra and I couldn’t live without it for the rest of the evening.
Things looked brighter, however, when you ignored this issue. This show is a monstrous undertaking. Few community theaters are equipped to handle this. Trevail directors Maurice Smith and Kiara Jones put on a real show on stage at the Youngstown Playhouse. In some cases it’s really touring quality – in others not so much.
The cast is led by Landon Talbert as Notre Dame ringer Quasimodo (pictured above). It took me a little while to buy Talbert as a deformed main character. He is constantly referred to as a “monster”, but his appearance doesn’t quite reflect that description. With costumes and a physical presence giving him his deformity, the lack of facial makeup hardly gave him the hideous sight they described. But that aside, Talbert quickly won me over with stunning vocal ability and the creation of a character that evoked the poor tortured figure of the Hugo novel. Even when he’s not talking and isn’t the main focus, it’s hard to ignore him as every move communicates the agony of his fate. He excels in many numbers but particularly in “Out There”.
Opposite Talbert like Esmeralda is Désirée Hargrave. Hargrave is up to the task in his role as Talbert. Her acting talent is matched only by her exquisite voice. She presents a willing Esmeralda with ease. As with Talbert, her engagement in the role is 150% as she pulls the audience in and they’re in her corner every step of the way. Vocally, she holds 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 gooey Frollo, the real villain of the play, who uses his position as Archdeacon 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 to an obsessed, almost maniacal tyrant.
Nathaniel Ams plays a strong and sympathetic Captain Phoebus who gets caught up in the action when meeting Esmeralda. His “Rest and Leisure” number at the start of Act I hints at certain layers of the character that are revealed later in the series. Other notable performances were by Ben Bogen as Clopin, Trevail Maurice as Saint Aphrodisius, and Michael Macciomei as Jehan.
Musical director Mazhorell Johnson has assembled an ensemble of exceptional quality. Strong vocal ability and stage presence help the ensemble serve many purposes in the show, including talking statues and gargoyles.
The set design by Leslie Brown, Jack Hanna and Sindy Hanna is top notch. With the action mostly taking place inside the cathedral, the set is simple but intricate with moving wooden stairs and raised platforms that extend the action both outwards and upwards. A large glass-like circle dominates the center wall and adds to the different looks.
The three bells of the cathedral are extremely well made and match the enormity of the overall production. The only problem with them is that you have these three impressive bells which, when they ring, produce a rather anemic sound. A much louder resonance would have served them well. And speaking of sound, the reappearance and annoying sound of feedback permeated the entire production from start to finish.
Although there is no lighting design credit in the program, it is very prominent in the production. From creating an atmospheric effect to wonderful pops of color, it helps the set become another character in the musical. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for how the chase spots work. The follow up operation was downright terrible. From not hitting targets when needed to letting actors out of location and location not following, this part of the lighting was downright embarrassing.
Special effects are ubiquitous throughout the production and add a lot to the show. One of the most spectacular effects is when Quasimodo pours moulton lead from the steeple onto the crowd below. Using a technique from Japanese theater makes for a truly memorable moment.
Brian Palumbo’s costumes were top notch. Period costumes can sometimes be a problem, but Palumbo has it all figured out and added a lot of color to the production as well.
Even with the unfortunate “dings” this production has, it’s still a lavishly produced show the Playhouse can be proud of. As I watched the show, I couldn’t help but think of those people who started the Youngstown Players 97 years ago. He’s come a long way and how proud they’d be if they could see what he’s become. Put this show on your list for a remaining performance.
Note: The Playhouse used to include musical numbers in its programs for years. They have, for some reason, abandoned this practice. They have to get it back again. Audiences love to follow along and see what musical numbers are coming
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” will continue tonight, June 3, 4 at 7:30 p.m. and May 29, June 5 at 2:30 p.m.
Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.