By Shannon Penrod
Last night I saw something amazing. I was fortunate enough to attend the “Invited Dress” for a new production of the musical Hunchback of Notre Dame. This is a show that utilizes the music from the Disney movie of the same name. You didn’t know there was a stage version? Me neither! It has only had 3 previous productions and it never made its way to Broadway. Now with a new genius direction from Glenn Casale, this production just closed a rave run at the Sacramento Music Circus, where it was done in the round, and has been restaged with a few cast changes for a short run at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing. Run, don’t walk to get there.
Life is short, so I’m just going to say this…there are some performances in life that should not be missed… John McGinty as Quasimodo is one of them…actually, technically…two of them. It’s beautifully complicated. John McGinty is a talented actor, who happens to be deaf. Take that in for a moment. Quasimodo is referred to as being hard of hearing because of the bells, but the role is not written for a deaf actor. When Glenn Casale made the decision to cast McGinty, he knew that he was going to be heading down a path that would require everyone involved in the show to make adjustments. It was a choice he was willing to make. We all need to be grateful. The result is something that is bigger than can be imagined.
First, the production is stunning. It’s beautiful, moving, exciting and emotional. The cast is superlative, the music is lush and it all adds up to brilliant storytelling. But, there is something more, something that crackles in the air, an excitement that is palpable and only comes when the actors and the audience are both aware that something extraordinary is happening. This is Casale’s Hunchback. There is something truly transcendent about this particular production.
It would be easy to say that what makes this show special is John McGinty’s performance. His portrayal of Quasimodo is soulful, to the bone honest, and riveting. The audience is treated to a performance in which there can be no doubt that nothing was held back, he clearly leaves it all on the stage in breathtaking manner. So, yeah, there’s that…but still there is more. McGinty both speaks and signs his role, but he does not sing…when Quasimodo sings it is the voice of Dino Nicandros who plays one of Quasimodo’s trusted gargoyle friends. This where Casale’s production goes off the rails and enters the stratosphere. I cannot say enough about this intertwined performance and how spectacular it is. The combination of McGinty signing in a desperate need to convey the beauty in his soul paired with the emotional voice from Nicandros, who literally gives his voice to the character of Quasimodo…it is life changing. As a theatrical convention it is stunning, beautiful and storytelling at its best. As a metaphor for life it is brilliant.
The show asks us to examine closely what a man is; what is a monster and what is a man? I found that my mind wanted to go much further. For me it got personal. I sat in the darkened theater watching this show with my 13 year old son, who happens to be on the Autism Spectrum. I could not help but think about all of the lessons he was learning watching this beautiful story being told in this particular, deliberately inclusive way. I needed for my son to see that sometimes people are cruel. The story poignantly shows us this. All of our kids need to see the truth about the bullying of people who are perceived as different and the dignity of those who stand up to bullies to protect the outliers. I needed my son to see that, but I also needed him to see that sometimes people need the support of others to tell their story. McGinty, Nicandros and the entire cast embody this. They selflessly work as a team to show us what Quasimodo is thinking and feeling. There is no apology for the ways in which the company must accommodate McGinty’s differences. There is no need. Under Casale’s direction it isn’t a “disability”, it is a strength that is super human, larger than life. It is big enough to include the company and the audience and still have room to spill out of the theater and into the streets. I NEEDED my son to see that on stage and off stage, being differently-abled doesn’t mean you have to sit on the side lines. You can tell the story, you can be the story. The rest of his life people can tell my son a long list of things he can’t do – according to them – but he will always remember this show and know the truth. Anything is possible… and when we work together our differences can become our strengths.
One last brilliant thing…I don’t want to spoil any surprises but something that I particularly appreciated was that Casale allows us to see McGinty transform onstage into Quasimodo and at the end of the show we get to see him transform again. This handsome young man steps into the light and we see him nod, charmingly, with confidence as he agrees to take the hump and become someone else. He transforms before our eyes and is instantly Quasimodo. I could wax poetic about how beautifully Brechtian I found this – but let me just say this, I loved that the children in the audience got to see this, to know that this man has agreed to play this role, to take on this difficult task, to tell the story, so we can learn and be better. Yep, took my breath away. Go see it. Tell everyone you know. Take your kids. Let them talk about it afterward. This is how the world is changed.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is playing at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts September 16 – October 8, 2016 For tickets, visit: www.lamiradatheatre.com