Music Theatre Wichita has a long-standing history with Disney Theatrical Group, so perhaps it’s no surprise it’ll produce “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” this week.
Then again, Disney has “a curious relationship” with this piece, which in its latest incarnation premiered at California’s La Jolla Playhouse in 2014, said Wayne Bryan, producing artistic director for MTW.
“‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ is a much darker subject matter than most (Disney) stories,” said Bryan, whose company produced “Beauty and the Beast” last year. “All the stories have villains and peril for the lead characters, but they generally have uniformly happy endings for the good people.
“‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ is a much more complex look at human nature, that virtue isn’t always rewarded.”
MTW is among the first wave of regional theaters across the country to produce the Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken musical – and its production will be aided by $10,000 in money.
Music Theatre Wichita announced earlier this season it had received the $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to develop innovative digital scenery for “Hunchback.” If it’s anything like scenic designer J. Branson says it’s going to be, it promises to be a highly innovative set.
“It allows us to go so many extra places that we physically couldn’t, even if we had the budget for it,” Branson said.
Video designer Timothy Babb has created digital projections to augment the physical scenery on stage. For example: in one scene, Claude Frollo stands atop a bridge, and underneath the bridge, there will a projection simulating rushing waters.
Bryan, who saw the musical at Paper Mill Playhouse, originally declined an offer to mount a production of it. The show was met with tepid critical response, and since has undergone many changes.
“When I saw the premiere production at La Jolla I just felt I was locked into one location all night, and it didn’t engage me on the emotional level I thought the show was capable of,” Bryan said. “When the cast album came out and I started listening to it... I started imagining what it could be like on stage. That’s when I started to get excited about it.”
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is based on the 1831 Victor Hugo novel, featuring songs from the animated Disney movie released in 1996. It follows the story of Quasimodo, the deformed bell-ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral, and his quest to be “out there” in a society that ultimately rejects him. It also follows the story of Esmeralda, a Gypsy woman who helps Quasimodo realize that “different is not less than,” said Skyler Adams, who plays Quasimodo in the MTW production.
“What a great character to bring nobility to and make sure that everybody that’s in the audience that might feel unheard, that you get to hear that you’re seen and you can be the hero,” Adams said. “God sees you. You’re a beautiful creation.”
The story – which grapples with issues such as lust, damnation, infanticide – is generally considered one of Disney’s darkest stories.
Stephen Mark Lukas, who plays Capt. Phoebus in this production, said he relishes the opportunity to perform in a musical without a strong following.
“It does give us license and it does give us room to create these voices and these characters – what this means as a piece of theater and how we can bring it to life,” Lukas said.
With 83 cast members on stage, the musical will be MTW’s largest production of the season. There will also be an on-stage choir featuring 29 singers from Butler Community College – all in costume.
So expect this production to be big –but perhaps not one that makes you stand up and cheer at its finale.
“It’s a very thoughtful piece, very different than when we think about just closing ‘Hairspray,’” said Thomas W. Douglas, MTW’s musical director. “Sometimes they may not cheer. It’s just like when we did ‘Big Fish.’ When it was over, you’re a little more thoughtful and pensive than just celebrating this wonderful performance.
“That’s all part of the theatrical experience, which is really positive.”
‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’
What: A musical featuring songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, based both on the classic Victor Hugo novel and also on the Disney animated film from 1996. It’s the fourth show of MTW’s 2017 season.
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thu., 8 p.m. July 28, 2 and 8 p.m. July 29 and 2 and 7 p.m. July 30