|Joshua Castille and E.J. Cardona in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Tracy Martin)|
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
5th Avenue Theatre
Though June 24, 2018
In a small revolution, without a ton of fanfare (aside from their usual advertising), the 5th Avenue Theatre has busted down doors of exclusion for thousands of deaf and hard-of-hearing folks by casting a deaf actor as the lead in their current musical, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and providing him an opportunity to both sign and be sung for. The 5th Avenue joins a recent production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Sound Theatre Company that was entirely reconfigured to include signing and speaking throughout.
That aspect of this musical production is simply brilliant! Joshua M. Castille, a versatile and accomplished actor, who happens to be deaf, is cast here as Quasimodo, the twisted-from-birth boy who is hidden away in the towers at Notre Dame to be “protected” from the heartless plebians of the city. E.J. Cardona sings for Castille and follows him around (mostly as a gargoyle companion) and manages to be melded to him beautifully and to also sing soaringly and emotionally.
This production is likely just about the best production you might be able to see of this musical. The cast is solid, the technical aspects are beautifully done, and the addition of 30 members of the Pacific Lutheran University Choral Union fills out the singing with suitable church harmonies.
Having said that, it’s not a terribly good musical, as many Disney pieces often end up. The story is told in a straightforward way with relatively little “artfulness” in the telling. The production apparently uses a different libretto than the Disney film. Sure, the songs are by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, but they’re fairly pedestrian, content-wise. No particularly soaring lyrics, no particularly memorable music. And it moves along pretty slowly.
There are also some huge holes in the story, like why would the only place to hide a fugitive be the bell tower inside Notre Dame Church? Doesn’t that sound like a trap, not a safe hideaway? And even in this production, a man’s hamstring gets cut and several minutes later he’s walking around like it never happened.
I have not seen the Disney version, but I understand the talking/singing gargoyles were played for laughs and here they are thankfully not. There is some lovely choreography for the Gypsy population and some pretty costuming, and there is some notion here of a displaced population facing unreasonable prejudice.
Esmerelda (beautifully sung by Dan’yelle Williamson) is not apparently even known by these local Gypsys, yet why she suddenly shows up here is unknown. All the main men fall in love with her, but she’s got a lot of dialogue about being her own person in a very 2018-style liberation, yet apparently still falls in love with a captain for little apparent reason other than moving the plot along.
So, much of the event is fairly average, but then there are flashes of absolute brilliance. The fact that Castille will sign every performance (along with some signing by the cast) and many of the performances will be live-signed in ASL or captioned to read means that so many people who are usually left out of theatrical participation can be included. That is something to be celebrated and applauded.