Review: Tragic Hunchback Is Grand Finale to Milwaukee’s Skylight Music Theatre Season

Guest review by Anne Siegel.

Milwaukee’s Skylight Music Theatre ends its 62nd season with a musical that was nearly 30 years in the making: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, created by Chicago-based Dennis DeYoung, co-founder of the rock music band, Styx. The Wisconsin premiere of this new musical continues through June 12 in Skylight’s Cabot Theatre,  located near the city’s Summerfest grounds on the lakefront.

Skylight Music Theatre, where Michael Unger, who had a role in the play’s development, has been artistic director for the past couple of years, was a place where Hunchback could come to life. One of the city’s oldest performing arts groups, Skylight mounts its productions in the beautifully decorative Cabot Theatre. Given as a gift to Skylight by a philanthropist who worked for many years with the company’s late founder, the Cabot Theatre is modeled after the famed 19th century “jewel-box” theaters in France. 

Its ornate interior is the perfect setting for a Gothic-inspired musical. It even has a perfect spot for a matching pair of realistic-looking gargoyles (apparently created by Steven Royal and some props assistants).

Another plus is that the musically driven Hunchback is a match for Skylight’s longtime attention to a show’s vocal aspects. Skylight shows are always as delightful to hear as they are to watch. The theater’s state-of-the-art acoustics allow voices (and instrumentals) to virtually soar over the audience’s heads. The 350-seat theater, which includes orchestra seating on its main level, boxes on either side and two balconies, gives audiences an intimate experience.

Alanis Sophia (Esmerelda) and Janet Metz (Mahiette). Photo by Mark Frohna.

So “the stage was set,” as it were, for a promising evening of musical theater. Hunchback delivers on almost all levels, with vibrant characters, superb singing, elegant swordfights, endless dancing, elaborate sets and costumes, and a seven-piece orchestra that sounds twice its size. Credit goes to music director Eric Svejcar (keyboard player and a Chicagoan) and choreographer Lisa Shriver. 

Even though Hunchback may not make it to Broadway, a handful of its songs will live on in the musical archives. Tunes such as: “Who Will Love This Child,” “Ave Maria,” “With Every Heartbeat” and “Beneath the Moon” will surely be grist for cabaret singers and vocalists everywhere.

More Tragic Than the Novel

Although some have tried in the past, there’s no way to separate Hunchback from its dark plot. As in the novel, the musical begins when a deformed infant is left on the steps of Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral (on a “dark and stormy night,” no less). A humble priest, Frollo, retrieves the child and vows to keep him safe inside the enormous cathedral. (Frollo sings the heartbreaking, “Who Will Love This Child.”) 

While growing up, the orphaned Quasimodo is tutored by the priest. He also works here and becomes deaf by ringing the loud cathedral bells, which signal the townspeople to attend Mass. Although Quasimodo wants to interact with the people he sees far below the belfry, he is chided by the priest to stay within the church.

The initial scene, lit in cold and brooding colors (lighting by Jamie Roderick), is suddenly cloaked in a red scrim. When the scrim disappears, the stage is alight in color and movement. It is the Feast of Fools, a real-life celebration on the streets of Paris. It is a time when gaudy costumes, drunkenness, dancing and frivolity reign (costumes by Alyssa Ridder, sets by Adam Koch).  A large cast of Roma dancers happily entertain the audience, while fortune tellers and thieves do their best to relieve townsfolk of their money. (A talented violinist, Janice Martin, is a wonderful addition to the merriment.) Various characters are introduced, including the lovely, 16-year-old dancer, Esmerelda. 

Esmerelda is so charismatic that she draws in every male around her, including Frollo the priest; Phoebus, a leader of the king’s guards; and even Quasimodo. On this noisy, colorful and joyous occasion, Quasimodo gives into temptation and makes an appearance at the festival. Being the most hideous-looking among the throng, he is quickly crowned “king” of the festival.

That’s probably the most “upbeat” scene in this 2-hour, 45-minute show (with intermission). Eventually, Quasimodo is flogged, Phoebus is stabbed, Esmerelda is imprisoned, etc. (no spoilers here). In fact, this musical has some even bleaker episodes than the original novel. 

Ben Gulley and Kevin Anderson as Quasimodo and Frollo. Photo by Mark Frohna.

Kevin Anderson Leads an Impressive Cast

The cast is led by Kevin Anderson as Frollo. Anderson will be familiar to Chicago audiences at Steppenwolf, the Goodman and Victory Gardens theaters, and he has an extensive list of film and TV credits. Anderson is a massive talent and a terrific newcomer to Milwaukee theaters. He exhibits a soulful, spiritual side to the lecherous priest who wants Esmerelda for himself. (In fact, Frollo is seen flogging himself at one point.) Tall and commanding, with a wonderful voice, Anderson seems perfectly suited for this part.

Equally excellent is Ben Gulley as Quasimodo. An operatic tenor who has sung around the globe, Gulley brings an exquisite voice to the stage. This is a stunning contrast to his character’s appearance (complete with hump, bent-over limp and his face twisted into a grimace). All of his songs are masterfully delivered, whether the bold “Ave Maria” or the solo ballad, “Beneath the Moon.” His acting chops are solid as well. In the Fest of Fools scene, he laughs and stomps to the “attention” given him by a jeering, ridiculing crowd. Later, a grateful Quasimodo accepts water offered by Esmerelda (this is among the musical’s tenderest scenes). He is now in love with Esmerelda as well, and joins her and Frollo in singing “With Every Heartbeat.”

As Esmerelda, Alanis Sophia certainly looks the part. She has long, flowing tresses and a glittery, midriff-baring outfit. She’s also an exceptionally fine singer, which is especially apparent during her solos. Her dancing excels, too. But she under-acts some of her scenes, perhaps to play up her character’s innocence. 

Among other characters, Joey Chelius impresses as Phoebus, Esmerelda’s “true love.” Things are better onstage for Chelius when he interacts with his guards rather than Esmerelda. Sadly, the two lovers have basically no chemistry. Although her words are full of emotion, you don’t see it expressed physically until the couple’s final moments together (perhaps by director Michael Unger’s design). The guards’ exciting swordfights are well-staged by fight director Jamie Cheatham.

Some Cracks in the Cathedral Stone

There’s an “epic” quality, a sense of grandeur and history about this musical, which suggests comparisons to Les Miserables (including some of the songs). However, there are a few jarring elements. The production’s set design varies from opulence to minimalism. Near the end, when Esmerelda faces the gallows (twice!), it looks as though funds for set design have run dry. This scene includes little more than a bare wooden stool and a rope noose dropped down from the grid. Not surprisingly, this choice minimizes the drama as well. From there, it’s a downward slope until the final scene. This Hunchback is true to the book but isn’t a fully satisfying experience. .

The musical’s length is also an issue. The first act has 18 songs (including reprises), and act two has 13 songs. Reducing the total number of songs would focus the story more tightly on its central plot. I wish that the dialog could have been as beautifully written as the songs, but that’s a minor quibble.

Overall, this is a monumental, bold and skillfully mounted effort by Skylight. It is a long-awaited show that originally was scheduled for Skylight’s 2020 season (and canceled due to the pandemic). While some area theaters are still regaining their footing after pandemic closures, this show puts Skylight fully back in the spotlight. 

Kein Anderson and Ben Gulley as Frollo and Quasimodo. Photo by Mark Frohna.

Hunchback‘s Chicago Roots

The musical’s production has strong Chicago roots. In 1994, Michael Unger was an assistant director on Steppenwolf’s production of A Clockwork Orange. Unger, a Highland Park native, originally worked at Steppenwolf’s location there. Then he followed Steppenwolf to its current location on Halsted Street.

When Unger saw Dennis DeYoung standing outside of Steppenwolf’s entrance, he went up and introduced himself “as a big Styx fan,” he recalls. DeYoung mentioned he was working on a musical adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He invited Unger to his house to hear his music from the show, and Unger eagerly agreed.

Last week, DeYoung was in the audience on Hunchback’s opening night. After the show, he gave a brief curtain speech. “I had written a few of the songs by then,” he notes. “And I thought, ‘hey, these don’t suck.’” That was enough motivation for DeYoung to continue work on the project.

Milwaukee audiences at Hunchback may be heartened to know that DeYoung was first introduced to music through accordion lessons. DeYoung’s Italian mother encouraged him to take up the accordion at age seven. But the Beatles were ruling the radio airwaves at the time, and eventually the electric guitar, etc., became more prominent in DeYoung’s life. He rose to international fame as part of the legendary rock group, Styx.

A musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s famed 1831 French novel wasn’t on the horizon for decades. But DeYoung is far from being the only one attracted to Hugo’s novel. Through the years, the compelling story of a hideously disfigured man and his love for a fiery gypsy girl has been adapted in numerous films, ballets, operas, television and radio shows. DeYoung’s musical previously has been produced in Chicago.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame continues at the Cabot Theatre, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee, through June 12. Running time is 2 hours, 45 minutes, with one intermission. The theater advises that masks should be worn indoors but does not require them. For more information, see www.skylightmusictheatre.org, or call 414-291-7800.

Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic who has been a member of the American Theatre Critics Association for more than 30 years. She has served on the organization’s executive committee and has held a number of committee chairmanships. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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