Festival 56 ends its 15th summer season on a more dramatic note with a musical filled with themes of bullying, lust, and authority vs. morality.
Based on the 1831 Gothic novel by Victor Hugo, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” transports its audience to 15th-century Paris where gypsies and thieves roam the streets and a deformed young man named Quasimodo (Marc Bitler) has been sequestered in the bell tower by the Archdeacon Claude Frollo (Colin Sullivan).
Frollo believes he’s doing the right thing by isolating Quasimodo from a world that would ridicule his “monstrous” appearance.
But Quasimodo longs to see life outside the Notre Dame bell tower, and when a trio of stone gargoyles convinces Quasimodo to disobey Frollo and sneak out of the bell tower, he ends up deciding to go out — just for one day.
While out on the Paris streets, Quasimodo stumbles upon the Feast of Fools celebration. Despite his attempt to hide his appearance, the gypsies uncover his cloak and taunt the poor man until the enchanting gypsy Esmeralda (Astonica Bhagat) dashes in to his rescue.
Esmeralda follows up her heroic actions with a tenderhearted musical number.
In the song, “God Help the Outcasts,” Esmeralda paints herself as a selfless, empathetic woman who prays to God to shield outcasts (like herself and Quasimodo) from discrimination. The message of her song is sure to tug at the heartstrings.
Esmeralda’s compassion toward Quaismodo is returned with affection and an urge to keep her safe. She is the only person to ever show him kindness.
Frollo, despite detesting the gypsies, is also affected by the beautiful Esmeralda. Confusing lust for love, Frollo’s advances are rejected repeatedly.
In the meantime, Esmeralda steals the heart of Capt. Phoebus (Brandon Chu), a subordinate of Archdeacon Frollo. And when confronted by Frollo, Phoebus rejects his authority and instead chooses to protect his love in the face of death.
Spurned, Frollo abuses his power within the church and leads the plot further along a dark twist of events.
In an unexpected ending, Quasimodo explodes from his restricted social confines, doling out justice on his “master.”
Bitler’s performance as Quasimodo is outstanding. He brings such grace and innocence to the character.
Sullivan gives a powerhouse performance as the ruthless, self-righteous religious Frollo.
Bhagat fits the role of Esmeralda perfectly with her strong but gentle demeanor. She also steals the show with her song and dance number, “Rhythm of the Tambourine.”
Chu plays the noble role of a man who struggles between the authority of Frollo and doing what he believes is just.
The entire 18-member ensemble of this production is also noteworthy. They bring color and energy to the stage from the moment the show takes off and dives into the solemn musical number, “The Bells of Notre Dame.”
Director Tommy lafrate has brought to life a powerful, intense performance that will leave you pondering the heartfelt, underlying messages long after you’ve left the theater.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” continues for showings today (Saturday) at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday for a 2 p.m. matinee. The production takes place in the Grace Performing Arts Center, at 316 S. Main St., Princeton. For tickets, visit www.Festival56.com, call 815-879-5656 or stop by the box office.
Note to readers: Goldie Rapp is a senior staff writer for the Bureau County Republican.