Long before Lady Gaga and her rallying cry for acceptance, love and respect for all little monsters, French novelist Victor Hugo — in his own fashion — spoke up for the disenfranchised and misunderstood. Both The Hunchback of Notre Dame (with its grotesque bell-ringer and ostracized gypsies) and Les Misérables (which Hugo wrote after having witnessed the arrest of a starving bread thief) have stood the test of time, later adapted for film, television and musical theater.
For its second production of 2018, Art Factory is premiering Houston's first professional presentation of the musical, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, though they tell us it's been performed locally in academic settings. And who better to portray the main protagonist Quasimodo — a sequestered hunchback who is practically deaf — than actor Colton Berry, who knocked it out of the park as the half feral Bat Boy in 2016?
"The message of quality and acceptance is so true, constantly spoken in the show; it hasn’t changed," says Berry. "Trying to find a level playing ground for all humans."
Arguably the darkest production in the film-to-stage stable for Walt Disney Theatrical, the musical — music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Peter Parnell — includes songs from the 1996 animated film. Which gives the musically inclined Art Factory (who have an ambitious six-event live concert series in the works this year), an opportunity to invite local vocalists on stage to sing in the cathedral choir.
"Not a lot of shows do it — have the choir onstage — but I totally understand why it’s designed that way," says Berry. "I’ve been to Notre Dame and seen the choir sing; it's one of the most awe inspiring experiences that I’ve ever had. That Latin: everything is changed, the sound. It really sets the auditory backdrop, the beautiful story."
The characters narrate throughout, beginning and ending with the elderly gypsy beggar Clopin, played by Luke Hamilton. He opens the play with Quasimodo's origins story, then closes with a thought-provoking question about good versus evil.
"'What makes a monster and what makes a man?' The line is sort of the whole theme of the show," says Berry. "Are you a monster because you’re different or are you a monster because you’re a bad person? What we learn is that Quasimodo is really the hero here and he’s got the truest soul and purest heart."
Berry notes that it's typical of very early theater pieces to preach to the audience directly. "Are you a monster audience member, here with us, equal to us, here for the furthering of good society and accepting your neighbor, not putting yourself up on the pedestal? Or are you making monstrous choices?"
As the leitmotifs are unveiled, either through instrumentation or vocally, we'll hear several of our favorites: Quasimodo's "Out There," Esmeralda's "God Help the Outcasts," Frollo's "Hellfire," and "Topsy Turvy."
"Some of them were written for the film. 'Someday,' in the closing credits in the film now makes a huge statement in the show. 'Recs and Recreation' — they've really expanded the score from there. It almost feels like an opera," says Berry.
Mark Jackson is playing Judge Claude Frollo, Raven Troup is Esmeralda and Jayson Kolbicz is Phoebus (Frollo's guard), with an ensemble of Brennan Ashley, Sydney Blankenship, Michael Castillo, Savannah Lee, Edith Maldonado, Julia Noble and Victoria Riley bringing the gargoyles, gypsies and Parisian characters to life.
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"Raven can do some pretty amazing things. The cast is absolutely stunning," says Berry. "It’s not a direct translation of the animated film, just the songs and characters. This isn’t a dramatic version of the Hugo novel. The music pushes it along.
"It’s a much darker and more serious tone," says Berry, adding that it's not necessarily inappropriate for children, just that it has mature themes.
The set design will be stripped of the standard pomp and circumstance — very clean and open — though they do plan to stay true to Hugo's color palette. There will be bells, natch, and a stained glass window, which leaves plenty of room for that onstage choir.
Performances of The Hunchback of Notre Dame run March 24 through April 8, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, Art Factory, 1125 Providence, 832-210-5200, artfactoryhouston.com, $25.