Review: ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ at Toby’s Dinner Theatre

Tucked inside the new live musical retelling of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame at Toby’s Dinner Theatre is an altogether wonderful concert staging that should not be missed. The show itself may be based on a famous Disney film adaptation, but don’t go assuming it’s for kids. It might be for some kids, but its most enthusiastic admirers will be fans of Gothic literature and liturgical choirs.

Sam Kobren is Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame at Toby's Dinner Theatre. Photo by Jeri Tidwell.
Sam Kobren is Quasimodo in ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Photo by Jeri Tidwell.

This 2014 English-language version, developed over the course of many diverse tryouts, often wraps itself in a cathedral setting. The score is literally awe-inspiring in person, especially as performed by a tremendous cast of singers in the circular confines at Toby’s.

The show builds on songs from the animated film by its two much-honored songwriting pros of Broadway and Hollywood, Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin) and Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast).

The action, of course, comes via one of Victor Hugo’s darkest novels, posing the medieval question “what makes a monster and what makes a man?” Both qualities are demonstrated in the lead characters, but especially in the rigid archdeacon Dom Claude Frollo and his deformed-at-birth nephew, Quasimodo.

There’s so much story to cover here that something had to give, and that turns out to have been the welcome comic relief of the Disney film. The talking stone gargoyles and statues around Notre Dame still communicate with its bell-ringer, Quasimodo, but they mostly function as a Greek chorus to move the narrative along.

This overreaching archdeacon, you see, has a weakness for loose Gypsy girls. One of them has robbed him of his brother Jehan, and several years later another named Esmeralda threatens to undermine what remains of his piety. Quasimodo and a military captain named Phoebus fixate on Esmeralda as well. Meanwhile the poor people of 15th century Paris suffer tyranny and go to church mainly to pray for themselves.

When the smoke clears, the thing Toby’s patrons will most likely take away is the sparkling professional stage debut of Sam Kobren as Quasimodo. Forgoing any gimmicky makeup or sympathy ploys, Kobren simply straps on a simple hump at first appearance, covers it in sackcloth tatters, and goes about all evening as a poor average Joe coping with a world determined to see only his deformity.

Jessica Bennett as Esmeralda watches Sam Kobren in The Hunchback of Notre Dame at Toby's Dinner Theatre. Photo by Jeri Tidwell.
Jessica Bennett as Esmeralda watches Sam Kobren as Quasimodo in ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Photo by Jeri Tidwell.

Yes, Kobren gives perhaps the season’s most full-bodied performance with literally half his body hidden. He has a wonderfully sunny stage presence and a richly shaded singing voice that places him exactly where Victor Hugo would have liked, as the instant audience favorite. Be prepared for a shiver or two from his big “Top of the World” love duet and the moving solo, “Made of Stone.”

The always-sensational powerhouse singing of Russell Sunday is put to good service as Dom Claude Frollo. In his songs “Sanctuary” and “The Assault,” Sunday unleashes the other side of the Beast he played so masterfully at Toby’s in Beauty and the Beast.

As Esmeralda, another Toby’s newcomer named Jessica Bennett is more than a ball of fire with a tambourine and a wicked glint. Her soaring voice comes on a mighty breath of compassion and the missionary zeal of the underdog in “God Help the Outcasts.” Her duet with Phoebus on “A Place of Miracles” is another of the evening’s great musical highlights.

The role of Phoebus has much in common with another famous fictional officer, Don José in Carmen. Toby’s versatile leading man Jeffrey Shankle captures both the overweening narcissism and the romantic longing behind the blond captain. He shines as a top-notch vocalist in the “Someday” duet and the signature solo, “Rest and Recreation.”

DeCarlo Raspberry is as winning as ever as the singing “King of the Gypsies,” with David Bosley-Reynolds providing strong support in two key cameo roles. The Toby’s ensemble of actors and especially the divine singers of the Congregation further distinguish a production with no weak links.

Credit must go to co-directors Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick for taking on such a challenging work. The real hidden stars of the show are the live musicians up in the orchestra “pit.” Music Director Ross Scott Rawlings provides astute accompaniment from what must be enormously demanding charts.

David A. Hopkins cleverly uses Toby’s in-the-round theater as an atmospheric cathedral interior made of stained glass, balustrades and stone. Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin, Sound Designer Corey Brown, and Costume Designer Janine Sunday combine forces to bring all the elements of good theater into strong focus.

Peter Parnells’ book adaptation is not ideal. It lacks pacing and takes a while to work up any sort of pitched conflict.

But give Quasimodo and the gang a large bell with a golden clapper for pushing back the hordes of jukebox musicals and “pure” Broadway escapism. Like Les Misérables before it, The Hunchback of Notre Dame finds Victor Hugo looking to feed a deeper spiritual hunger, and to that end Toby’s delivers.

Running Time: Two and a half hours, including one 20-minute intermission.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame plays through May 19, 2019, at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. Reservations are required. For tickets, go online.

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John Harding
Born and raised in Los Angeles, John Harding is an award-winning writer and editor. His features and reviews on film and theater have been published in the Washington Post and numerous other newspapers and magazines. Since 1982 he has covered D.C. and Maryland theater for Patuxent Publishing, and was arts editor for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He hosted a long-running cable-TV cultural affairs program and served numerous terms as chair of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Also known for his fiction as John W. Harding, his newest novel is “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 'Hollywood Games.'” It grew out of his lifelong love of early Hollywood lore. It is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other outlets.

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