In a mellow moment, Nietzsche once wrote, “There is nothing that does us so much good as the fool’s cap and bells.” This sentiment was realized in medieval France in its annual Feast of Fools celebration. Roles would be reversed temporarily, with fools celebrated as wise and the wise as foolish. Victor Hugo recognized this tradition in his novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in which the Feast of Fools is celebrated, and the townspeople elect Quasimodo as the Pope of the Fools.
Hugo writes: “A huge head, bristling with red hair; between his shoulders an enormous hump…and, with all this deformity, an indescribable and redoubtable air of vigor, agility, and courage…Such was the pope whom the fools had just chosen for themselves.”
This significant scene is featured early in Toby’s Dinner Theatre’s musical adaptation of the novel, and in some ways sets the tone for this entertaining yet thoughtful production, directed by Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick.
During the Feast of Fools, the world is supposed to be reversed; fools are popes, and respectable townspeople are fools.
At the core of the show, however, is the notion that reality and appearance may be switched more often than one day a year. The ugly and deformed cathedral bell-ringer Quasimodo, played with sensitivity and power by Sam Kobren, possesses an inner beauty, even nobility.
The beautiful gypsy Esmeralda, played winsomely by Jessica Bennett, also lacks any sort of social standing in proper French society, yet she, too, has a character defined by both dignity and grace. Conversely, Quasimodo’s uncle, the Cathedral Archdeacon Dom Claude Frollo (played with villainous delight by the aptly named Russell Sunday), superficially has a respectable and saintly exterior but is permeated with inner corruption.
As is always the case with a Toby’s production, the singing is first rate. Three standout moments are especially deserving of mention. One is the moving “Sanctuary” duet by Sunday and Kobren as Frollo and Quasimodo; this song does many things brilliantly, including establishing the character and complex motivations of two of the major figures in the show. Another is “God help the Parishioners,” a song in which Esmerelda reflects upon the ways that the seemingly petty hypocrisies of social leaders can have huge, if unanticipated, negative consequences.
Finally, “Top of the World” is a moving duet between Esmerelda and Quasimodo in which the two discover their friendship and common plight of being social outcasts; Bennett and Kobren imbue their performance of this song with an ethereal charm that makes the events which follow even more poignant.
This reviewer was also amazed by the show’s effective use of props and lighting. At Toby’s, props and large sets are generally limited, mandated by the “theatre in the round” setting. Instead, innovative lighting effects and character motions are often used to suggest change of settings and circumstance.
One example is a very effective slow-motion scene in which Quasimodo climbs up the cathedral. Another is a segment in which Quasimodo is forced to pour molten lead onto an angry mob, achieved stylistically to great effect with red light and fabric. Stained glass effects are also used to suggest the rose window of the cathedral.
One caveat about this production should be mentioned: those expecting a live-action Disney musical might be in for a shock. There are no comical talking gargoyles!
The playbill makes clear that, while the production contains songs from the Disney film, the production is very much based on the Victor Hugo novel. Those familiar with the Disney film will learn about the far more somber ending to the story, yet children expecting the Disney film ending may be disappointed.
Minnick, choreographer and co-director of the show, explained the reason for the variations from the more familiar Disney cartoon film version.
While this version is also a Disney production, it was initially performed in Germany as “Der Glöckner von Notre Dame” (“The Bell-ringer of Notre Dame”). The show ran for three years in Berlin to great success and was later brought to the states. The German origin of the current production also explains some of the musical variations of the Toby’s show from the movie; some of the music reminded this reviewer of Carl Orff’s cantata “Carmina Burana.” Minnick said that these parts, usually performed by a choir, require the full cast to sing at times.
As other reviews of this show appeared before the recent tragic fire which destroyed much of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, we feel obliged to comment on this occurrence in connection with the show. This past month’s events add additional poignancy, serving as a reminder that the cathedral is not only a place of worship for the Catholic faithful but also a human cultural treasure. Theatre-goers are encouraged to see this Toby’s production; it is both moving and thrilling, and the setting at Notre Dame cathedral helps one reflect on the cultural meanings and ephemeral nature of the most profound edifices.