A cast of almost 50 and a 16-piece orchestra putting on a stunning but rarely done musical in a magnificent theater with balcony seating. The price? $15. I couldn’t think of a better theatrical deal in town, so I headed to Wayzata High School on Friday night for the opening of the student production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
If you don’t normally consider high school productions among your list of theater worth seeing in the Twin Cities, you’re not only leaving compelling works off the table (I’ve been dying to see this stage version of Disney’s Hunchback since an English-language cast recording was released in 2016 after a run at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey), you’re also missing out on voices that rival some professional productions around town, and often production value that far surpasses many. This Hunchback has burning torches, real metal swords, and a skilled orchestra playing a haunting, stirring score by Alan Menken (the genius composer behind Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, among other classics). Any musical theater fan would be a fool to overlook this show for the simple fact that it’s being staged by teenagers.
Speaking of fools, if you’ve seen the movie version of Hunchback, which is loosely based on the Victor Hugo novel, you probably remember the general plot here. The hunchback Quasimodo (played here by Rishab Naik) is locked away in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, hidden away by Archdeacon Claude Frollo (George Kleven), though Frollo would say he’s protecting Quasimodo from the public who will “revile [him] as a monster.” So much for that. When the city’s annual Feast of Fools engulfs the city, Quasimodo escapes to experience “one day out there,” and he meets the gypsy Esmeralda (Prateeksha Narasimman), who sees beyond his disfigured body. But Phoebus de Martin (the new captain of Frollo’s guard, played by Prinz Caneh) and Frollo himself also become enchanted by Esmeralda, in their own ways, leading to a kind of love quadrilateral that will end in the burning of Paris and maybe even a few deaths…
Despite the Disney stamp on this musical, this is no childish subject matter. The joking gargoyles of the animated movie have been reconfigured to be earnest angels (or devils, as it may seem based on a climactic scene) on Quasimodo’s shoulder. Frollo’s motivation in most of the show is his desire to have sex, for once in his life, with Esmeralda, though it’s not stated so explicitly. And we’re left at the end with the question: “What makes a monster and what makes a man?” The subtext there is that Frollo, the religious zealot, is the true monster of the show. No, your ears are not deceiving you, we are indeed at a suburban high school. I wonder what the parents were thinking as they exited the theater after two and a half hours (with a 15-minute intermission) and were waiting with roses for their kids to come out and meet them.
I’m glad to say the full cast gave the show the gravity it required, and the sheer number of singers on stage also imbued the music with the power it needed to bowl over the audience. This is not a musical to be sparsely furnished, with people or set decoration, and Wayzata High School Theatre got that memo.
There is not a weak link among the leading roles in this production. Even though Rishab Naik walks to center stage at his full height at the beginning of the show before hunching his back and contorting himself into Quasimodo before our eyes, you’ll forget that he’s the tallest of cast by the curtain call, so convincing is his portrayal of the title character. And “Out There,” his opening solo, has got to be one of the most underrated and most difficult “I want” songs in the Disney canon, even for professional actors, but Naik does Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz (of Wicked fame) proud with this soliloquy. As the “ordinary man” counterpart to Quasimodo, Caneh’s Phoebus is winning from the start, a true Disney prince with a clear, strong voice to match. Kleven has the most difficult character to embody as a teenager, as his job is to empathize with a lustful and hypocritical senior cleric, but when he throws himself down on the stage at the end of “Hellfire,” possibly the most bonkers song in the Disney canon, he’s obviously given it his all.
What of the woman at the center of it all, Esmeralda? Narasimman holds this cast together with her charisma, energy and pitch-perfect delivery of songs from the upbeat “Rhythm of the Tambourine” to Act 2’s solemn “Someday.” She’s got pipes, acting chops and more than a few moves.
If you’ve never heard of this stage version of Hunchback before, there’s a good reason for that. The production started in Germany, not the U.S., undergoing a variety of edits throughout its life but still never making it all the way to Broadway. Take my advice and don’t miss this chance to see it staged; even if you do see a professional production, chances are you’ll never see another like this (as director Grant Sorenson provides a unique framing device, which you’ll see as you take your seat). And if you happen to have kids at a rival high school and don’t feel up to supporting Wayzata, then go support your local school’s fall production. From Minnetonka’s Grand Hotel to Washburn’s Spring Awakening, there are worthwhile musicals being staged all over the Twin Cities, for those who are willing to give high school artists a chance.
*This is an amateur student production. As such, this review will not criticize any of the young artists.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Wayzata High School Theatre
4955 Peony Lane N.
Plymouth, MN 55446
Playing through November 19
Tickets: $15 (adults), $12 (seniors, 62+), $10 (students/staff)
*Buy tickets online before. If you don’t, you’ll still be asked to buy them on your phone when you arrive. There’s no escaping the digital experience, as I tried to do.
Buy tickets here