THE Savannah Children’s Theatre enters 2018 with gargoyles, stained glass, and gargantuan challenges.
In their highly-anticipated production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, an eclectic cast will bring a favorite Disney film to life while honoring its literary legacy.
“The themes are dark,” says Children’s Theatre Artistic Director Kelie Miley. “There’s a lot of music you’ll recognize from the 1996 Disney cartoon in the show, but a lot of the silly cartoon comedy has been taken out if it. It stays more true to the book.”
In Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Quasimodo is a bell-ringer and hunchback living in Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral. Quasimodo is devoted to Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon who adopted him when he was an abandoned baby. Frollo obsessively lusts after Esmerelda, an enchanting gypsy, though his position at Notre Dame Cathedral strictly forbids him from pursuing her. Wicked Frollo commands Quasimodo to capture Esmerelda and bring her to him, and a legendary story of morality, prejudice, and fate follows.
In 1996, Disney joined the canon of Hunchback adaptations, releasing a feature-length film directed by Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale with a score written by Alan Menkin and Stephen Schwartz. The movie is considered to be one of Disney’s darkest films.
In 1999, an adaptation of the film that delved deeper into that darkness was produced by Walt Disney Theatrical in Berlin and ran until 2002.
Miley finds that many of the show’s themes are quite timely and can spark conversations about the fictional work and its similarities to our current political and social climate.
“The themes of the show are acceptance, belonging, love,” Miley explains. “But it’s based on extreme repression. When you have a deformity, where does that make you fit in? There’s the power structures of the society of the time, which kind of mirror the power structures of current society with government. What someone self-righteous thinks is moral behavior is not moral and not in the best interest of people. They’re trying to figure that out with a medieval framework. What role do the soldiers play? What they’re being told to do to the underclass of the city—is it correct, or should they think for themselves?”
It’s a musical that Miley has hoped to produce for some time, and she looks forward to tapping into the story’s history as well as its timeless messages.
“There’s definitely a strong theme of prejudice against people who look different, talk different, or are from a different place from you,” she says. “We’ve talked a lot about how women are seen at the time. A lot of it is strangely relevant. This production...I’m really happy with how they did it. It’s very theatrical, where every place you are isn’t in realism. We break the fourth wall in it, and it’s got a lot of theatrical conventions to tell the story. We’re in real time, telling the story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Its music, action through narration, the singing, it all works together.”
The Children’s Theatre Hunchback cast includes Kendra Norwood as Esmeralda, Les Taylor as Claude Frollo, and Brandon Kaufman as Quasimodo.
The cast of 29 features a variety of ages and experience levels. The script also calls for an Adult Ensemble and Children’s Ensemble to fulfill Alan Menkin and Stephen Schwartz’s musical vision, and the works offers a unique challenge for singers.
“There’s a lot of choral music and a lot of Latin,” says Miley. “The action will be going on, but there’s a lot of major Latin singing going on, and the vocal parts are very choral. Everybody has learned the Latin for the songs.”
In creating a set, Miley says The Children’s Theatre focused on making a “suggestive world” of Notre Dame Cathedral and its surroundings.
“It’s going to be a beautiful set,” she says. “The costumes are beautiful, too. I think all the visuals of the play are rich in that they complement the music and complement the staging.”
2018 is a big year for Savannah Children’s Theatre, and they’re kicking it off with a bang. After Hunchback, students will take on Beauty and the Beast as well as Bonnie and Clyde. In the spring, look for Stellaluna.
As the crew approaches its first production of the new year, Miley hopes to reach new audiences and inspire dialogue through Hunchback.
“One of the main themes I’ve jumped on is, ‘What makes a monster and what makes a man?’” she says. “Is it because you’re deformed...or is it in how you act and the pressures that are making you react?”
“It’s a hard show,” she says. “We are so thrilled with our cast.”