Earlier this year, newly appointed Greece Performing Arts Society board president Eric Vaughn Johnson — who also serves as business manager and program director for RAPA — announced GPAS would reinstate the Greece Theatre Company and mount the regional premiere of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” GPAS was formed in the late 1960’s, but this is the first time a (young) city resident is serving as president, and the influence is already showing.
While “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” retains the music from the 1996 Disney adaptation, the storyline is much closer to Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel and takes a darker approach to the Parisian tale. Through October 29, the musical runs at the Lyric Theatre main stage.
Artistic Director Janine Mercandetti, who last co-directed “Assassins” at Blackfriars Theatre alongside Danny Hoskins, is tasked with leading a show that’s somewhat familiar, with a cast of 19 Rochester and Finger Lakes-based actors, while working in the 40-person Greece Chorale Society to support music and lyrics written by Disney powerhouse duo Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.
What results is a community theater production that reaches another level. From Quasimodo (played by Dylan DeGeorge) perched atop the cathedral to Esmeralda (Kit Prelewitz) dancing in the street below, there isn’t a weak cast member in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
DeGeorge, Prelewitz and Steve Valvano (who plays a truly shudder-inducing Claude Frollo) steal scenes throughout the show. DeGeorge, especially, with his heart-stopping rendition of “Heaven’s Light” and earnest character, is marvelous to watch. Prelewitz, a recent Nazareth College graduate, portrays an independent, fiery Esmeralda who captivates the audience with her soaring vocals (“The Bells of Notre Dame,” “God Help the Outcasts”) and command of the stage. In the role of Captain Phoebus de Martin, is Carl Del Buono, a singing, swaggering delight. Del Buono is also a very late addition to the show, stepping into the role even after programs were printed — but were it not for that fact, no one would suspect he hadn’t been rehearsing for months.
A full orchestra to the right of the stage, conducted by Vocal and Musical Director Yunjin Audrey Kim, expertly plays through more than 25 musical numbers. Choreographer Mandi Lynn Griffith-Gurell makes the most of an interestingly spaced stage and multiple levels with movement. Costumes and wigs by Kitty Lipski are thoughtful and vivid.
Because the cast and crew have clearly worked hard to prepare this premiere, it’s disappointing the venue doesn’t serve their work better. There are two inherent challenges with the Lyric Theatre’s main stage space: sight lines and acoustics. The sight lines are due to a lack of tiered seating (Lyric retains church pews from its days as a place of worship), which becomes problematic when audience members clump together. Fortunately for the cast and crew, more than 100 audience members attended opening night. Unfortunately for the audience members, sometimes other people are very tall.
As for the acoustics, a musical may have the greatest singers and orchestra, but without precise sound design and technical savvy a show will lose its oomph. Most of the sound during Friday’s show seemed to be coming from two small standing speakers, similar to what a wedding DJ might use. If the Lyric were to install a true sound system, this would serve both organizations and attendees well. Otherwise, the space is magnificent and an ideal backdrop for this production aesthetically.
At approximately two hours, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is a commitment, but the time flies as each cast member performs with fluidity and prowess. Hopefully, this is the first of many laudable works from the Greece Theatre Company.