Liz Kershenbaum as Esmerelda, Schuyler White as Captain Phoebus de Martin in Lyric Music Theater’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Photo by Mary Meserve

In the coverage of the recent fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the name of Quasimodo, the famous fictional bell-ringer there, came up more than once. Well, the big guy has now turned up stateside at the Lyric Music Theater. And, of course, the lovely Esmeralda is still very much on his mind.

Based on both the Victor Hugo novel and the Disney film, the fresh Lyric production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” fills the stage at the Cedric Thomas Playhouse in South Portland with much drama and song. Directed by Don Smith and performed by dozens of local cast members, the Menken/Schwartz/Parnell show toggles between quite dire circumstances and a few brighter moments of festive celebration circa the 15th century.

The opening-night performance was marred by a last-minute substitution due to illness. David Heath took over the role of the morally corrupt archdeacon Frollo and had to read much of his part from a script. He still managed to give his lines and vocals enough energy to offset the unusual circumstances.

Jeffrey Fairfield, in the title role, works hard to approximate the human “monster” who is given “sanctuary” in the bell tower of the cathedral by Frollo. Fairfield switches his Quasimodo from monosyllabic simpleton to full-throated singer and back again throughout the performance. He fares best on songs like “Heaven’s Light” and “Made of Stone,” where his tenor reaches for depths of feeling.

Liz Kershenbaum, as the enchanting Esmeralda, credibly draws the attention of not only Quasimodo but Frollo and a military captain (Schuyler White). Her moments in the spotlight on “God Help the Outcasts” and “Someday” feed the strong romanticism at the heart of the show.

Some of the musical’s more spirited moments come during scenes featuring a Gypsy band under the leadership of Clopin (Brandon Wong), an acrobatic presence who, surrounded by uninhibited dancers, provides a jolt of energy to the proceedings. With choreography by Victoria Perreault, the expressive “Topsy Turvy” is a major highlight.

Imaginative details, such as masked gargoyles who advise Quasimodo, add to an otherworldly sense, as do robed choristers creating dramatic crescendos with both sacred and secular content.

It’s a big, ambitious show in which the stirring moments outweigh the caveats to reconfirm the Lyric Music Theater’s place in the local creative community.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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