Whether from the 1831 Victor Hugo novel or film adaptations, including Walt Disney’s 1996 animated version, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” will ring a bell with most people.
Although the stage version playing at Toby’s Dinner Theatre tends to be clumsy in summarizing the story’s rich detail, the familiarity of the basic plot ensures that the audience will be able to follow all of the intrigue in medieval Paris.
Also helping ensure that the sad tale of the hunchbacked character known as Quasimodo comes across is that this stage version keeps a pretty tight focus on a few central characters, and it helps that songs from the Disney film version are used in character-defining ways.
The songs by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz are not particularly memorable, but they’re agreeable and do their part to underscore the plot’s strong emotional content.
Most importantly for local theater-goers, the Toby’s production, co-directed by Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick, manages to make a very smooth case for an awkwardly constructed stage musical.
There are first-rate performances in the lead roles, tightly conceived choreography by Minnick that keeps numerous supporting players in constant movement around Notre Dame Cathedral, and stirring orchestral support overseen by music director Ross Scott Rawlings.
As for Quasimodo, Sam Kobren brings out the pathos of a physically deformed character who is essentially kept prisoner within the cathedral by its villainous archdeacon, Dom Claude Frollo (Russell Sunday). Watching the hunchbacked Quasimodo ring those church bells is so mesmerizing that one wishes this production included a bit more actual bell ringing.
In any event, Kobren conveys both Quasimodo’s physical limitations and his tormented psychological state. As a vocalist, Kobren does justice to songs including “Out There,” “Heaven’s Light” and “Made of Stone.” Although he occasionally seems to be sing beyond his comfort zone, he always delivers the emotional content of the songs.
Kobren and Sunday have well-acted scenes together in which their characters’ family connection is tensely explored; and when these two actors bring their singing voices together in the duet “Sanctuary,” it’s a powerful moment.
Indeed, the overall production has the courage of its convictions in telling a tale that has more than its share of dark and disturbing material. Speaking of dark, the moody lighting by Lynn Joslin brings out the ominous quality of the gothic set design by David A. Hopkins, but it often seems to be even darker than necessary.
It would be nice to have more light on the cast, especially the actors in the other two principal roles. They are such gifted actors and vocalists that it’s a shame to have them barely emerging from the darkness in certain scenes.
Jeffrey Shankle portrays Phoebus de Martin, who is the captain of the Cathedral Guard; and Jessica Bennett portrays Esmeralda, who is described in the playbill as “a beautiful and free-spirited Gypsy.” That description of Esmeralda makes it clear that Phoebus will not be the only guy at the cathedral with a romantic interest in her.
Bennett and Shankle have a lovely duet, “Someday,” and both together and apart they are called upon to sing a lot in this show. Not to take anything away from Bennett’s vocal talent, but the real highlight of this production is the near-operatic heft that Shankle brings to his musical numbers. It’s startling in a good way.
Also reliable throughout the evening are the adroitly blended voices of a large ensemble that is rather amusingly described in the playbill as a “Congregation” that consists of “various Gypsies, gargoyles, statues, soldiers, revelers, parishioners, priests, prostitutes and citizens of Paris.”
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” runs through May 19 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia. Call 410-730-8311 or go to tobysdinnertheatre.com.