Theatre Review: Upper Darby Summer Stage should feel on “Top of the World” after opening night of Hunchback
Upper Darby Summer Stage opened to a packed house with the Philadelphia regional premiere of The Hunchback of Notre Dame based on the novel by Victor Hugo with songs from the Disney Film.
Under the direction of Jeff Dietzler and musical direction by Gina Giachero, the cast of 60 ignites the Performing Arts Center with this deep, dark story of acceptance and tolerance. A story all too universal in 2017. Surprising that it hasn’t yet been produced in diverse Philadelphia, but so very glad it’s here now.
Full disclosure, I spent my formative theatre years as a member of this company. From 1992 to 2005, I appeared on stage in several ensembles, directed a slew of children’s theatre productions, and stage managed some behemoth main stage musicals. And since ’92, with the exception of perhaps one or two, I’ve attended every main stage musical. So for the past few weeks, I’ve seen post after post promoting Hunchback as the “not-to-be-missed” event.
The scenic design by Martin Dallago is worth the price of admission alone! A three story replica of Notre Dame with full choir loft, stained glass, and bell chimes. The three dimensional detail by the carpentry crew (Corey Canty, Davis Caramanico, Emily Graver, and Edward “Blue Eyes” Robins) is exquisite but boy, those steep steps make me panic! The painted floor and stone work is a also remarkable and I would love to credit the artists but am unable to retrieve names. Patrick Ahern’s props and set pieces were uniquely used to accent the storyline. (Although the cathedral bell could use some wd40.) You don’t see scenery this dynamite anymore, especially in Philadelphia, unless you go to The Walnut Street Theatre or view a touring production with The Kimmel Center for the Arts.
With that being said, the promotional materials I’ve read indicated how “huge” this production would be. So perhaps, because it seemed flawlessly executed, it didn’t seem as huge as I expected in regards to production. What was indeed huge was the vocals helmed by Gina Giachero and Eric Longo. My arm hairs gave a standing ovation after the opening number. Not since Summer Stage’s Titanic have vocals been that precise and spellbinding. Between the choir and the new sound system, the musical numbers were powerful and shook me to the core.
Charismatic Patrick Walsh plays the central character, Quasimodo. He has a velvet voice that charms as he speaks and mystifies as he sings. His falsetto is effortless. When we are first introduced to Walsh’s character, he layers on the Quasimodo costume in clear view. As if to say we are all born the same before we adorn our flaws. A moment I didn’t quite understand until it was to come full circle at the end. Although it appears he had a costume guffaw that got in the way of concept at resolution.
Playing Frollo was Chris Monaco. Although small in stature, he brings brevity and strength to his villainous bishop, while hitting all the right notes in scene and song. From chorus girl last season to star of the show this season, Sierra Wilson brings a new vitality to Esmeralda. There is a reason this gypsy mesmerizes three suitors based on her gyrating hips alone!
Summer after summer there are kids who grow up with the program and often caught behind the scenes or in smaller roles. The main stage program fosters young adults 18 to 28 years of age. This year, Tristan Horan hit it big in his character of Phoebus. This is HIS YEAR. His flawless voice, stoic nature, and stage gliding made this character actor a leading man. Side note, his soldier sword was a bit distracting in his first few scenes as the clinking against his holster was picking up loudly in the microphone.
The Upper Darby Performing Arts Center has always struggled with the sound system up until now. A new, state of the art system is in place. Nearly every actor who spoke or sang was affixed with a microphone. Amanda Hanna’s sound design does not go unnoticed on this reviewer. The orchestra, located in a space outside the theatre, sounded like they were recorded on a professional HD disc, yet it was live! The chamber choir of 30 and the cast of 60, always sounded crisp and clear.
With Mary Folino’s costume design and Jenna Rogalski’s choreography, director Jeff Dietzler was able to take a “huge” production and scale it down to what matters. Often times, shows in the community get lost in their own set. At the core of every play is the script. Stripping down a show from gigantic set pieces and using the actual text to tell the story is what makes a director a good storyteller. Dietzler excelled at being a master storyteller. Rogalski created innovative movements for the Statue/Gargoyle and Gypsy ensembles that complimented well with Folino’s costume design.
Lighting Design is often responsible to assist in telling a story. Specifically when one is stripped down in such a way as Summer Stage’s Hunchback. Although colors and areas were created to assist mood, there were several times that it did not aid in storytelling. The Gargoyles are played by a dozen actors, assisting in the narration of the show. One line here, another line there. With the actors strewn about the stage it was a struggle to find who was singing when when everything was lit. To be honest, it felt like a tennis match. Isolating light for each solo line or using a spot light may have gone a long way.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame should be on your absolutely must run out the door and see list! There are magical gems we come across from time to time and this is one to put in your memory bank. For 42 years Summer Stage has been producing “epic” musicals. This one is clearly top 5!
God bless the outcasts!
Upper Darby Summer Stage
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
July 29, August 4, August 5 at 7:30pm
July 29, August 5 at 1 at 1:30pm
Anne Marie holds a BFA in Theatre Arts from Kutztown University. She has worked professionally in Philadelphia and Delaware County in stage management, directing, and producing. She is the owner of Nightcap Cabaret, Philadelphia’s philanthropic cabaret company. Over the past 20 years, Anne Marie has worked with Mazeppa Productions, The Walnut Street Theatre, Upper Darby Summer Stage, Encore Entertainment, Rockwell Productions, Media Theater, Players Club of Swarthmore, and Narberth Community Theatre, among others. Anne Marie served as a Barrymore nominator for Theatre Philadelphia for the 16/17 season and currently serves as an adjudicator for Philadelphia Independence Awards.
She is currently Editor-in-chief for Philly Review.
Instagram and Twitter @annemarie0817