For the first time in its history, Topeka Civic Theatre and Academy opened its winter main stage production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
“We’re the first community theater in the nation to be granted the license for this show,” said director Shannon Reilly. “We were struggling trying to find a good Christmas show, the one we wanted became unavailable at the last minute, we weren’t able to get it, and out of the blue I was contacted by Music Theatre International and they said, ‘How would you guys like to be the first ones to do ‘Hunchback?’ and we were elated.”
The show debuted Friday night and runs through Dec. 23.
The music leans heavily on church hymns, choral music and Latin, telling much the same story as the 1996 Disney rendition, but with a few darker twists. The musical is reverted back to the original tale by Victor Hugo, with additional songs by Alan Menken.
The strength of this show is apparent not only in its leading cast, but the ensemble, and as Reilly described, Menken’s use of lyrics to make up the script. The opening set is an empty Notre Dame Cathedral, with only the stained-glass window casting light onto the stage and the three large bells hanging overhead as the fixed props.
“What I found in this particular show is I had some of the best of the best singers audition,” Reilly said. “It’s funny, because every now and then there’s a show that really excites the acting populace, and this was it. I had some of the best showing up for the acting auditions, and one after another they were just absolutely amazing.”
The main rolls of Dom Claude Frollo were filled by Adam Groves, Esmeralda by Ashley Young and Quasimodo by Danny Lassley.
All three are veterans at TCT, and have had major roles in the past. Lassley was previously Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables,” with co-star Fantine, played by Young. Groves recently returned to TCT after about 10 years in New York, Reilly said, and previously performed in the local theater’s production of West Side Story.
“His voice has always been great, but it’s so mature and so powerful and so rich — he’s a glorious Frollo,” Reilly said.
Throughout the entire production process of this show, Reilly said he’s been continuously impressed with the support his actors show each other. From cheering each other on at auditions, to taking time outside of rehearsal to practice, to even bringing in soup or hot tea when sickness started to run through the cast.
“This is that one cast in 1,000 where I’ll say ‘let’s take a 10 minute break,’ and while I’m going to the bathroom they’re in the corner running through the dance on their own or they’re going over to the piano and practicing their parts,” Reilly said. “These are people who really want the best and they’re dedicated to this show, and for me it’s thrilling and exciting to go to rehearsal every night, because I get to see it again.”
When asked about his favorite part — Reilly said unabashedly that the last 10 minutes of the show alone are worth the price of admission. He’s quick to clarify — the entire show is phenomenal — but in the last 10 minutes, he said early viewers “were just so intent on what was going on” he could barely hear them breathing.
The ending is different than the Disney predecessor — less palatable, Reilly said — but it adds a layer of depth and humanity the animated version lacks.
“This is a production that’s going to stay with you afterward,” Reilly said. “You’re going to talk about it, you’re going to feel it, you’re going to share it with your friends because it is absolutely a moving moment.”
Ticket prices range from $25 to $50. For information, visit bit.ly/2mSgUW0.