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Ambitious 'Hunchback' premiere comes alive on stage

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is an extravagant, larger-than-life musical production, so big it barely fits on the Camelot Theatre stage.

The play, based on the 1831 novel by Victor Hugo and the 1996 Disney animated film, opened last week to audience acclaim. The Camelot performance, directed by Shawn Ramagos, is a regional premiere, so ambitious that it is rarely produced as community theater.

A misshapen baby is hidden away in the bell towers of Notre Dame Cathedral, growing to adulthood there as a captive of his uncle Frollo, who reigns supreme as the cathedral’s Archdeacon. It’s a story of insiders who have power and outsiders who have none, a story of sanctuary, belonging and love. Starring Paul Cosca as Frollo, Mia Gaskin as Esmerelda, Eoghan McDowell as Phoebus and Erny Rosales as Quasimodo, these four are joined by an ensemble crew of 11, a choir of 12 and a full orchestra.

The play opens as the gowned and cowled congregation and choir file into the theater, chanting softly as they proceed through the aisles to the stage. It’s dark, and the vast reaches of Notre Dame are a soft vision in the background, huge bells suspended above. And then Erny Rosales as Quasimodo leaps to grip the ropes and the bells ring out, thunderous and deafening. He swings up and down, again and again and we enter Quasimodo’s strange world.

Hugo’s novel is Gothic dark, presenting growing civil unrest, class wars and the absolute power of the clergy in early 19th-century Paris. Hugo’s novel was also written to celebrate the exquisite medieval architecture of Notre Dame Cathedral, increasingly threatened by decay and deterioration. The cathedral is a living, breathing character in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” more so because of the creative projections of stained-glass windows, vaulted ceilings, haunts and vistas that expand and transform the set. The stone gargoyles atop the highest buttresses come alive to those who know they are sentient.

Ramagos’ signature set design includes a large, mobile unit that can turn and transform into many structures. The theater is designed as three levels, Ramagos taking his inspiration from the arcades, arches and vaults of the classic Gothic cathedral. Nimble Rosales leaps onto the balustrades, and even though we know he’s safe at stage level, it’s not hard to imagine Quasimodo scrambling the railing high above Paris.

As Quasimodo, Rosales is garbed in rags that partly conceal his deformed spine; makeup has fashioned a hideous face that he hides in fear. Rosales plays this serious role as easily as he takes on the comic, physically debasing himself and cringing away from human eyes. He is an outsider, looking out over the city of Paris, his only friends a trio of gargoyles, stone beings that come to life and deride and console him. Catherine Hansen is one of the gargoyles, her odd voice sounding harsh and gravelly though offering love and counsel to the lonely man.

As Archdeacon Frollo, Cosca is cast in what may be his finest Rogue Valley role so far and delivers a powerful performance. Cosca is physically large and commanding, made even more imperious with the silken robes, gold cross and ruby ring of his office. All of Cosca’s deep, authoritative vocal talents come into play in song, dialogue, diatribe and soft, foul assertions. Frollo burns with desire despite his vows and is fevered with vengeance when disobeyed.

Gaskin glows as Esmerelda, a Gypsy woman who befriends Quasimodo and refuses to give herself to Frollo. Gaskin’s brilliance lights the set, and her movements are grace incarnate. Her kindness to Quasimodo and the guardsman, Phoebus played by Eoghan McDowell, is heartwarming. As a Gypsy, Esmerelda and her tribe — a large ensemble of wonderfully physical actors, including the talented Trevor Pekas who narrates some aspects of the show — are also outsiders, subject to disdain and persecution. They seek sanctuary, but there is none, not even in the church.

Planning for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” began months ago with the assembly of the large cast and selection of the community choir. Rehearsals were rigorous and involved three separate teams of talents: choir, instrumental and acting.

During the performance, the 11-piece orchestra and conductor Ryan Johnson, musical director Scott Soltermann and music arranger Don Hopkinson Jr. are located off stage and out-of-sight in rehearsal space but stay in communication with the stage through headsets and monitors. The 12-person choir is on stage throughout the production, seated in the back under the upper reaches of the cathedral. When the choir stands to sing or joins the ensemble cast, the theater trembles and so does the audience.

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” runs about two hours in the Camelot Theatre, 101 Talent Ave., Talent. Performances are set for 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays through July 21. Tickets are $28 to $36. This production contains the use of nontoxic smoke, haze and incense.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Camelot Theatre’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” stars Erny Rosales as Quasimodo,left, Mia Gaskin as Esmeralda and Paul Cosca as Frollo. Photo by Steve Sutfin