Courtesy of Michele Anliker Photography/The Dio
Determined is the first word that comes to mind when I think of The Dio’s latest production, the gigantic and larger than life musical: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” which, of course, is inspired and based on the Disney classic.
For any theatre group willing to tackle Alan Menken and James Lapine’s lively and engaging production, you need a small army. Looking up the original Broadway cast you’ll see over two dozen names listed just for the ensemble. This is most impressive, because The Dio’s production has employed 16 regional actors, and Steve DeBruyne has assembled his crew of gargoyles and late night dwellers in a fashion that doesn’t upstage The Dio’s enclosed space, but rather complementing the lengths he and set designer Matt Tomich will go to deliver a massive (and showstopping) production in such tight quarters.
Have you seen “The Hunchback of Notre Dame?” or read the novel by Victor Hugo? This isn’t the normal tier of what Disney or Menken make today. In fact, it’s rather astonishing to think Disney had their name on an animated film that, in other words, promoted incest, sin, and debauchery. But things were much different when the cartoon was released in 1996; today, this would’ve never been released under their banner.
In any sense, “Notre Dame” remains one of the more adult cartoons of its generation, and those themes and powerful tunes remain intact in the staged version - now playing at The Dio. The story involves the lonely life of the deformed Quasimodo (played by one of the hardest working artists in Michigan, Steve DeBruyne), born a “monster” who is rescued and left to be raised by the priests of the iconic Notre Dame cathedral in Paris - where he rings the bells daily - with the vast and gloomy backgrounds of the catedral becoming his new playground, and his only friends are a batch of innate stone gargoyles.
But his life changes on the day of the Festival of Fools, when he ventures out of his homestead and is accidentally selected as the “King of the Fools,” tied down by the hand of Judge Frollo (Keith Allan Kalinowski - brilliant) and rescued by the gypsy girl Esmeralda (Alaina Kerr - more on her later). In turn, they save each other and he offers her sanctuary inside his castle. It’s here where he finds himself in the center of a battle to save this women from Frollo’s troupes, headed by Phoebus (Isaac Orr) - whom in turn isn’t a bad guy, and well, has fallen in love with the fiery Esmeralda, then again… so has Quasimodo.
Heartbreak is inevitable, that much is true - but this is far from a predictable and simple tale - it’s one of compassion and understanding. DeBryune makes for a terrific Quasimodo, peeling layers from his past while laying the groundwork for a new future, he really sells the moments in which we must connect with Quasimodo (especially in scenes which show intense depictions of torture) - I was captivated by his transformation. The same goes for Kerr who has all the moves and agility necessary for an audience to fall in love with Esmeralda, and nobody looks their part more (a testament to DeBruyne’s solid casting choices).
Iconic tunes like “Out There,” the racy “Hellfire” and “Top of the World” excel under Daniel Bacheli’s music direction (though no orchestra is used in this production, the cast still sounds phenomenal with the canned music). And enough can’t be said regarding Norma Polk’s dazzling costume design, or Tomich’s attention to detail scenic work. Both masters of their craft, Tomich makes great use of levels within the small square footage of the stage, creatively making solutions to the narratives grand scope (pay attention to the detailed lines on the stage, the man is a genius) which allows Polk’s original costuming to shine even brighter. Tomich also designed the lightning and though some actors had trouble finding their light, his eye for helping turn, among many other instances, the haunting “Hellfire” into a visual delight is worth the price of admission alone (and so is the yummy dinner served prior).
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” - at least for this production - has better consistency on the stage as opposed to the film, allowing the characters more time to gravitate and mature towards one another and Lapine’s book gives the ensemble plenty of memorable songs to justify how sound the acoustics within The Dio actually are.
Now I can’t speak much to the capacity of The Dio as I haven’t seen too many of their staged productions, but this is one of the more driven musicals I’ve seen in the region. “Notre Dame” crackles and pops with likability, charm, and accurately depicts the inner demons these characters, like ourselves, often fumble with. Those lustful urges aren’t attractive which DeBryune, as the director and actor, are keen to show us, in turn making the message of acceptance and self love all the more potent. Obviously, we shouldn’t leap after the things we can’t have, but loving our character and not hiding behind a mask always rings the loudest.
IF YOU GO:
The Dio's production of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" continues through May 19th. Multiple performances are already sold out, so its best to click here or call (517) 672-6009 for reservations. All tickets include dinner, dessert, and non-alcoholic beverages.