Near West Delivers a Strong Community Theatre Production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Community Theatre

For those of you who know the work of Near West Theatre, your hearts will be filled by this production. Once again Near West Theatre puts an amazing number of people on stage who range from newbies to seasoned community theatre veterans, and individuals that find their calling and pursue professional careers in the field. This formula to infuse the cast with members of different skill levels, stage experience, cultural backgrounds, sexualities, economic environments, and family situations, fulfills many vital mission statements that are at the heart of Near West Theatre. And the large casts that are involved, not only help ticket sales but more importantly, provide an arena for more individuals to be involved as possible. The theatre is known for full out productions that feature the company members at the heart of every production.

With any production at Near West Theatre, one of the most consistent elements of every production is the brilliance of the technical staff. The product and artistry that is delivered for each production rivals any professional theatre in the city. Each time you walk into the theatre, it is always a breathtaking experience to take in the preset of the stage and drink in the set as it looms large and kinetic over the audience. It has never failed.  So I want to take a special moment and point out those individuals that have been consistently providing this incredible visual and artistic vision. These individuals have been with the theatre for years. Technical Director and Video Designer Perren Hedderson. Set Designer Cameron Michalak. Charge Scenic Artist Jenny Hitmar Shankland. Michael Stein. Ryan Wolf Assistant Production Manager/Stage Manager. In addition to these pillars, new artists are brought in for each production to fill out the production staffs.

On with the show. Victor Hugo is considered to be among the greatest and best-known French writers. The world came to know him from two of his greatest novels, The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831, followed by Les Miserables in 1862. Both books were turned into musicals, with Les Miserables being one of the all-time granddaddies of Broadway. But here at Near West Theatre, we find The Hunchback of Notre Dame created by the only stage collaboration from two masters of the American musical theatre, composer Alan Menken, and lyricist Stephen Schwartz. New Book provided by Peter Parnell. This brand new production is high theatre, boldly told through stunning choral music and sublime orchestral power. 

In the 15th century Paris, Notre Dame Cathedral stands in the heart of the city, a fortress of self-proclaimed righteousness and moral authority. Its citizens move through the streets together but separate soldiers, gypsies, priests, and beggars. The rich and the poor. Predatory and proud. They will do anything to survive. Quasimodo (engaging Pat Miller), the hunchbacked son of the bishop’s brother, rings the church bells and longs to live “out there.”

At the annual Feast of Fools, these worlds come together in a frenzy of drink and debauchery and elect Quasimodo the “King of Fools,” igniting a cataclysmic descent into a street war of forbidden love, betrayal and religious hypocrisy. Hateful torches are raised. The gypsy Esmeralda (brilliant Julie Penzvolto) and the fool are in a stand-off with all of Paris. There is a sanctuary for no one as true goodness and evil are exposed and the fury reaches an apocalyptic boiling point.

On the streets of Paris, the women are strong, as well in this production. Penzvolto is absolutely captivating in this production. Having been last seen in Carrie, the Musical last year, her performance as Esmeralda is to die for. Her beautiful and alluring looks are on full display and are enhanced by a deeply layered and wondrous vocal power. Her voice is transcendent in this role, as is her acting. Taking every moment and cultivating truth with perfect nuance. Kelcie Nicole Dugger is on fire as Clopin Trouillefou. Her stage presence is ominous. Her clarion voice is powerful and moving and taking names. Dugger has immersed herself into this tough exterior, this soldier quality, this force of nature that not only can knock notes out of the park but also some heads that don't agree with her. Fabulous performance. 

Miller as Quasimodo was definitely on point. His physical dexterity is incredible and makes the transformation into the creature believable. He whips around the set like one of those mountain goats on the sheer cliffs and seems to have endless energy. Through intrinsic acting choices his Quasimodo can be fully felt and allows a connection that enhances this fatal journey of love over any obstacle. Now add his athletic and powerful pure voice, and he becomes Magic Modo. He also has the ability to hold out the money notes so long, that I can run down to concessions, come  back with a fresh Diet Pepsi, and a low carb snack, and be back in my seat in plenty of time to yell "Hell Yeah!" It is a beautiful performance. John Webb as Dom Claude Frollo certainly has the vocal chops to handle the score and generates his own brand of darkness and manipulative energy. His scenes are played well, and certainly generates the lack of well being from the audience perspective, since they love when Frollo meets his maker. A solid performance. Webb dives in without fear. Robert Kowalewski as Captain Phoebus de Martin is equipped with one of the most beautiful voices around. Reminiscent of a love child from Perry Como, and Steve Lawrence, or a crooning stick of butter singing show tunes at the BOP STOP. His physicality is on point with a slicked back love seeking soldier aura. His scenes are solid and add a crucial depth to the show. Devin Pfeiffer as Jehan Frollo makes the most of his good looks, stage presence, and endearing qualities, while armed with an excellent voice.

The rest of the Company members are all focused and vocally blessed. This score is not easy and demands full vocal control and execution. The cast rises to this occasion with bells on. (See what I did there?) Really wonderful company work, with the distinct stamp of Director Bob Navis Jr all over the scenes. Staging is carefully orchestrated to highlight everyone, and everyone is required to be present at every single second of stage time. There is no other option, and everyone thrives on that challenge. One subset that works well together is the Statues and Gargoyles. Good work turned in by Angie Bendahan, Rachel Drotar, Lashavnna Hunter, Anthony "Bones" Kruse, Isabella Novosel, River Onwedinjo, Scott Pyle, and William Solarz.

There are some observations. I felt there was a lack of a Gargoyle presence in the actual set. The gothic work was fabulous, but I had wished from more Statues, and especially Gargoyles. As a result of that, I was a little confused about the Statue/Gargoyle group. They didn't seem attached to any specific Statue/Gargoyle and the costuming certainly wasn't clear. Maybe I just didn't dig the body suits. Maybe because I could never wear one. And I didn't know what the scarves meant on half of them. I am assuming Statue or Gargoyle. As far as casting, one would expect Frollo to have some age on him, and more time to have weathered many storms. Since the leads all read young, it was consistent with the other leads. Lastly, there was one company member mugging so much in every scene he was in, that it literally competed with every scene he was in. As a result, I think it affected the fact that I wasn't as moved as I wanted to be at the end because this guy was completely distracting.

Director Bob Navis Jr has produced a beautiful piece of art. So incredibly in tune with who are the outcasts in the world, and how to survive. Never shying away from the hard questions, or the hard answers we do not want to hear or see. It is all there, due to his talent. Musical Director Matthew Dolan has done a brilliant job with the orchestra. Truly celestial, as were the musicians. Choreographer Josh Landis excelled at making Topsy Turvy an event, and the best interpretation I have ever seen of that number. Costume Designer Loren "Coco" Mayer brought her artistic gothic magic to the stage. Tackling a big cast with contoured strength. Sound Designer Matt Torok provided crystal clear balance. Properties Manager Susie Underwood brought here usual professional touch. Fight Choreographer Mike Obertacz nailed the sword fight sequence, and I can't remember a better-staged fight at Near West Theatre. Except maybe on the production team. Ha. 

Don't miss out on the productions here. They are worth every penny. Bravo.

Cleveland Stage Alliance
Ticket Information
and Promotional Materials

Thru May 20

7:30pm Fridays
7:30pm Saturdays
3pm Sundays 

$8-$10 General Admission, $25 Reserved Seating

(216) 961-6391
Order Tickets Online

Near West Theatre
6702 Detroit Ave.
ClevelandOH 44102