Review: A rich sound is the star of Hillbarn’s ‘Hunchback’

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Clopin (Brian Palac) tells the story of the beleaguered Quasimodo in Hillbarn Theatre’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” through Sept. 10th in San Mateo. (Photo by Mark and Tracy photography)

Clopin enters the stage with a seething ferocity, a balladeer ready to hunker down and tell the tale of Quasimodo, the fiendishly ugly yet gentle hunchback man who is resigned to a life of punishing bells in the ears and gargoyles serving as his only friends.

As Clopin moves through space as the omniscient conscience of the play, we receive our first glimpses of the hunchback that’s full of heart, a man who has the most beautiful view in all of Paris. Yet, he longs for more. What he wouldn’t give for a chance to make contact with another human, to have an opportunity to use all five senses as a part of that curious, intriguing world where he doesn’t belong.

Hillbarn Theatre’s production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is certainly solid, with some signature moments that keep the production moving in delicious fashion. Whether it’s the plethora of chamber vocalists that serve up tight harmonies throughout, or solid performances from a talented set of principal characters, the production is loaded with great touches, stupendous performances and a warm story.

Quasimodo (a fantastically visceral turn from Randy O’Hara) is a young man full of wonder, a resident of Paris in 1482. On the surface, he’s pretty satisfied – he has a gargoyle family, beautiful views and an ironic purpose – ringing the bells of the iconic Cathedral of Notre Dame. While every ring brings debilitating damage to his tender ears, those on the ground only hear peace and harmony, celestial beauty.

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(clockwise from bottom L) – Quasimodo (Randy O’Hara), Dom Claude Frollo (Gary Giurbino) Phoebus de Martin (Luke Hamilton) and Esmeralda (Amandina Altomare). (Photo by Mark and Tracy photography)

The story’s empathetic arc is assisted by the people that come into his life that encourage him to strive for more than just being a rooftop hermit. While he is discouraged constantly by his pious uncle Frollo (an effective Gary Giurbino) who has his own disturbing motivations, he is encouraged to climb down from his perch by the gargoyles, and soon, he is amongst citizens at a festival.

The results are predictably disastrous. Yet there is one woman who looks beyond his outward appearance and allows him to pierce her soul. That would be beautiful and magical gypsy Esmeralda (an empathetic Amandina Altomare). Her tender heart is driven by her own status in society. A member of a misunderstood people who are under constant threat from their fellow citizens, her connection with Quasimodo is palpable early on. And while Quasimodo is not her love interest, you can certainly see a mental connection between them that doesn’t seem to exist as fully with the dashing Phoebus de Martin (a delightful Luke Hamilton).

Brian Palac, as Clopin, ties the action together beautifully. His performance is tinged with hints of mystery, and his smooth as melted butter pipes hunker down as he constantly repeats the phrase “the bells of Notre Dame” while he lasers calmly throughout the stage.

Director Riley Costello moves the piece nicely through space, yet a few moments were a bit clunky and awkward. And while there were acting moments that were not always played with the truth of the moment, the acting was mostly on point.

O’hara’s performance certainly delved deep into the truth category. While the range of this character is off the charts difficult, O’hara played every moment beautifully. Whether it was scaling the wall in a fit of rage, or gazing into the beautiful Esmeralda with a longing and knowledge that a woman like her would always be just out of reach, O’hara was a constant fountain of bold acting choices and effective vulnerability. Altomare was a worthy recipient of these choices, and both performers brought a high degree of skill to their moments together.

The unsung heroes of the production were most certainly music director Matt Bourne and choral director Joseph Murphy, whose sound played nicely with Jeanne Batacan-Harper’s sharp choreography. Both Bourne and Murphy were given the golden opportunity of bringing together a deliciously full orchestra and passionate harmonies to deliver a soul-pleasing sound. Numbers such as “Topsy Turvy,” “God Bless the Outcasts,” “Rhythm of the Tambourine” “Out There” and “Esmeralda” were rich and full.

While there may have been minor flaws, this production soars because of its tenderness and dedication to telling Quasimodo’s story. A solid commitment to the richness of sound will produce a winner every time. And just like beautiful bells that come down from the heavens, this “Hunchback” lands at the ears wonderfully.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Hillbarn Theatre presents “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”
Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Peter Parnell
Based on the novel written by Victor Hugo and songs from the Disney film
Directed by Riley Costello
The word: A production that is committed to its music, Hillbarn’s production is full and rich
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Hillbarn Theatre
1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404
Tickets are $52
For tickets and more information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org

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