Mocked and tormented for his disability, then scolded by his father figure for straying from the great cathedral, Quasimodo climbs up into his lair like a wounded animal seeking safety.
Then Ben Gulley opens his mouth to sing “In My Silence” in an achingly beautiful operatic voice. Not all angels wear white and have wings.
Composer Dennis DeYoung has cited the 1939 movie adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel as one of the inspirations for his musical tragedy, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which Skylight Music Theatre opened Friday night.
DeYoung’s “Hunchback,” directed by Skylight artistic director Michael Unger, has some DNA in common with old movies. It’s filled with spectacle, a bit leisurely, beautifully costumed (by designer Alyssa Ridder) and dramatically lit (by designer Jamie Roderick).
It’s also a star vehicle for Gulley, Kevin Anderson as the cleric Frollo and Alanis Sophia as the Romani girl Esmerelda, who deliver DeYoung’s sweeping songs as if they’re singing for their lives — which their characters often are. Like the tunes he wrote for Styx, the band he used to lead, DeYoung’s songs for “Hunchback” hold nothing back emotionally. No hipster winking here.
For example, when Anderson discovers the malformed infant on the steps of Notre-Dame Cathedral who will grow up to Quasimodo, he sings “Who Will Love This Child” as though he is God’s personal advocate for every neglected baby in the world — and as if he knows personally, in every cell, what it feels like to be abandoned. And this is the character (mild spoiler here) whom you might say is the villain of this story!
Anderson dramatizes Frollo’s loss of faith as he wrestles with his passion for Esmerelda — in line with DeYoung’s vision of the character as tragic rather than cartoonishly evil. Despite Frollo’s spiritual crisis, this “Hunchback” treats the church itself respectfully and incorporates some beautiful choral singing.
Still, Frollo becomes another powerful man who blames a young woman for his own lust, a story as relevant in our time as in Hugo’s.
But Esmerelda’s kindness rouses the heart of Quasimodo in a gentler, nobler way. Gulley’s performance reminds me of “The Elephant Man,” gradually revealing the beautiful soul under the broken carapace. However, she only has eyes for the dashing Capt. Phoebus (Joey Chelius), activating the love quadrilateral that drives the action.
Skylight’s “Hunchback” portrays Esmerelda’s Romani circle in a complex way. Some are petty thieves, but they’re also a persecuted minority. Ensemble member Jackey Boelkow, who has Romani heritage, consulted on cultural aspects of the production.
While Gulley’s Quasimodo is mocked for his disability, his deafness (from ringing the church bells) is treated by other characters with straightforward sensitivity, as they remind each other to look at him while speaking so he can read their lips.
Music director and keyboardist Eric Svejcar leads the orchestra. This is not a Styx show, but anyone who likes that group’s power ballads and keyboard-driven songs should enjoy the music here.
On the day they met on a Chicago street in 1994, DeYoung and Unger talked about this musical. Nearly three decades later, they have made it a reality. I think they’re entitled to ring the bell until their arms get tired.
If you go
Skylight Music Theatre performs “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” through through June 12 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. For tickets, visit skylightmusictheatre.org or call (414) 291-7800. Skylight recommends this production for people 12 and older.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Dennis DeYoung’s Hunchback of Notre Dame is at Skylight Music Theatre