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Hunchback of Notre Dame as presented by Teachers Musical Society

The Hunchback of Notre Dame as presented by Teachers’ Musical Society:

Date of Adjudicated Performance: Thursday 14th March 2024.

There was great detail in a multi-levelled, structurally robust set, with a fine stained-glass window flown above a wonderfully gothic interior, that made an immediate impact and paid due respect to the grandeur of Notre Dame right from the outset of this production of The Hunchback, presented by Teachers’ Musical society. To add to the spectacle, a full chorus of Monks, and a collection of superbly attired gargoyles and statues, left you in no doubt that this was going to be a journey with a difference. And indeed, it was. It took me a while to get my head around the somewhat unlikely pairing of Grand Opera and Disney Ballads, but once I recovered, it was easy to be carried along by a wonderful cast and the top-notch production values that were stamped all over this show. Certainly, this production was closer to the original Victor Hugo telling of the tale than the watered-down Disney version, and the grandeur of the set and costumes, and indeed the performances, gave the whole show a spectacular quality.

With a demanding and heavily orchestrated musical score, this show required not just top class and energetic musicians, but also the strong and dynamic leadership from the Conductor and Musical Director, Dermot O’Callaghan, to hold it all together. From melodic ballads to pieces that approached Grand Opera, there was a strong symphonic feel to the orchestrations, and they were quite sublime listening. Added to that, the vocal choruses were challenging and frequent, and all performed with clarity and confidence. Dermot also ensured that his principals were note perfect and well-rehearsed. This was a very strong and enjoyable musical display from beginning to end.

Similarly, Director, Ciarán Mooney, got his casting of the show just about perfect, and the characterizations were sharp and appropriate for each performer. The attention to detail in staging and dressing, costuming, and make-up were excellent, and the use of the stage space and different levels was all very picturesque. It is difficult with the chorus of monks, (a little like the chorus of nuns in the Sound of Music), to do much with their presentation other than create ever-changing pictures and patterns, which was achieved successfully, and as a kind of a Greek Chorus, they performed their musical function superbly. Ciarán also made the most of that wonderful set. The flown-in swinging bells and bell rope, and the various drapes used during other scenes were most effective, as were the moveable wooden pieces used to create different interior locations. Props were mostly moved by members of the cast, doubtless under the careful guidance of Stage Manager, Gerry McCann and his team, and the show ran smoothly with no significant delays for scene changes.

The show was very well-paced, and the effect of burning Esmerelda at the pyre worked pretty well, as did the killing of Frollo, although I think perhaps Esmerelda’s death at the very end of the show could have been done differently. Overall, however, this was a well-directed and strongly presented piece.

The choreography of Nicole McDonald was very successful, with good patterns, plenty of variety, including good rhythmic gyrations and impressive lifts. Obviously, there is a limit to what one can do with a chorus of monks, and maybe that is why I felt that some of the gypsy

dances could have had a tad more fire and frenzy, but it goes without saying that the enthusiastic ensemble performed all their routines with precision and good energy.

In the central role of Quasimodo, the cowering, misshapen form of Eoghan Fingleton made an immediate impact, and belied the strong, flexible and charismatic presence that he possesses as a performer. His affected voice suited the character perfectly, without ever lapsing into unintelligible rambling. His diction was as perfect as his pitch, in a vocal display that was remarkably good. But it was the controlled simplicity of his thoughts and gestures that made this an acting performance of the highest standard, always in character, always sympathetic, always passionate and always believable.

Dom Claude Frollo, the ecclesiastical embodiment of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, was played with a creepy level of malevolence and pretentious piety, by Shay Griffin. His stature, his manner, his lust for Esmerelda, and his disregard for Quasimodo all contributed to his loathsome presence, and a strong and articulate vocal performance added gravitas to his character. Excellent work.

Bronwyn Andrews had the radiance, the mischief, the sensitivity, and the charisma required to realize the full potential of Esmerelda. Delightfully flirtatious, but cunning and cautious, she captured the gypsy in her character as strongly as she related the caring and loyal heart of a heroine. To top it all, she had a sublimely beautiful vocal quality that never faltered, in a truly memorable performance.

Stuart Pollock sleazed his way through his opening scenes as the amorous and somewhat roguish Captain Phoebus de Martin, but in the realization of his affections for Esmerelda, a more tender and determined soul emerged, giving breadth and credibility to his character. This was a very well-played role, with quality vocals and confident and secure tones.

Looking to all the world like a kind of a gypsy version of Captain Jack Sparrow, Shane Fox gave an eccentric and authoritative presence to his portrayal of Clopin, the leader among the gypsies. His presence was strong and reassuring and he was more than able for the vocal demands of the role.

Jim Walsh, as well as strutting and singing in the chorus like a young one, gave a very convincing and stalwart acting and singing performance as St. Aphrodisius

There were convincing performances too from Niall Burke as the impetuous and carefree Jehan Frollo, James Sullivan as the devout but kindhearted Lieut Frederic, Fergal Sweeney as the frivolous King Louis XI, Zoe Walsh as the provocative Madam of the local knocking shop, and Sadhbh O’Donovan as the flirtatious Florika.

And then there were the Gargoyles, five fabulously created statues, who come to life in Quasimodo’s imagination. Played delightfully by Eva Kelly, Emma Stack, Lauren Brownen, Séamus McManus and Garrett Rodgers, all exhibiting good individual character and accomplished voices. Their outfits and facial details were fabulous, and on that note, it came as no surprise at all to learn that the many excellent wigs on the stage had been provided by Ali Murphy, perfectly set, and secured on the heads of the cast. Likewise, the detail of the make-up was quite stunning, considering the faces of the gargoyles, the gold faces of the statues and some excellent character make up as well.

The wardrobe for the show was extensive, and universally excellent, from the robes of the monks to the garments of the statues and gargoyles, the religious attire, the soldiers’ uniforms, and the blaze of colour that was the gypsy costumes.

Excepting one or two early glitches with cueing and levels, particularly on some of the gargoyles’ radio mics, the sound team did a very good job, as did the lighting team, following the action with well-lit specific areas, enhanced the atmosphere of each scene with good back and side lighting. The smoke machine was well-used during the burning of Esmerelda upon the pyre, as was the glow of flames.

My one major gripe, which I feel compelled to express, (and I suspect it comes from the Disney influence on the material,) was with accents. With a range from almost Shakespearean English to American and one decidedly French gargoyle, I found myself wishing that there was more uniformity of tongues throughout. That said, it did not detract from individual performances, or the overall effect of a thoroughly enjoyable show and highly entertaining production. Thank you to all concerned for a very memorable experience.

Peter Kennedy

Gilbert Adjudicator 2023/24

Photographer credit: Seamus Fearon


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