The Hunchback of Notre Dame at Rancho Cotate High School (Aired: March 4, 2020)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame finally makes its North Bay debut with a production offered up by a local music education center. Cotati’s Music to My Ears is presenting the musical at the new Rancho Cotate High School Theatre Arts Auditorium in Rohnert Park through March 8.

A blend of Victor Hugo’s gothic novel and Disney’s 1996 animated musical, the show never made it to Broadway but has met with some success with regional and community theatres. Rohnert Park’s Spreckels Theatre Company scheduled it in a season a few years back, but pulled the darker-than-you-would-expect-with-the-name-Disney-attached entertainment for a more “family friendly” show.

Hugo’s 15th century-set tale of the Cathedral of Notre Dame’s bell ringer Quasimodo (Chris DeSouza), his guardian Archdeacon Frollo (William O’Neill), and a gypsy girl named Esmeralda (director Aja Gianola-Norris) is a monster of a show to produce. Operatic in scope, the production benefits immensely from the involvement of San Francisco Opera member O’Neill as both performer and choir director. A chorus is integral to this show, and there’s a 28-member one on stage throughout.

DeSouza, who is deaf (as is Quasimodo), communicates beautifully through American Sign Language while actor/singer Ezra Hernandez provides the speaking and singing voice. This had to add a significant level of complexity to the production and credit must be given to all involved for making it work so well. While many cast members utilize ASL in the show, the March 6 performance will be fully ASL interpreted.  

Gianola-Norris makes for an entrancing Esmeralda, and there’s good work done by Alanna Weatherby as narrator Clopin and Blake Chandler as the dashing Phoebus. The ensemble is filled out by performers of a variety of ages and abilities in fulfillment of the producing company’s vision that participation in theater is for everyone.

While there’s good costuming by Caitlyn Clark, the performance I attended was lacking in technical finesse. There’s no set to speak of and haphazard lighting and missed sound cues were a constant distraction. To add insult to injury, someone pulled the fire alarm during the final scene and the theatre had to be evacuated. After receiving clearance, in the best tradition of “the show must go on”, it did.    

The nobility shown by the cast and audience in dealing with that situation makes for a good summation of this production. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a noble effort.

The Music to My Ears production of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ runs through March 8 at the Rancho Cotate High School Theatre Auditorium in Rohnert Park. Friday and Saturday evening performances are at 7:30pm; the Sunday matinee is at 2pm. The Friday, March 6 performance will be fully ASL interpreted.

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