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Wed, Oct. 16

Prescott Center for the Arts presents the epic, ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ thru June 16

Leah Morales, middle, and Jeremy Zuhlke, right, perform in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. (Joe Webster/Courtesy)

Leah Morales, middle, and Jeremy Zuhlke, right, perform in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. (Joe Webster/Courtesy)

Don Langford isn’t shy about tackling massive stage works. Director of “Sweeney Todd”, “Les Misérables”, and “Noises Off “at Prescott Center for the Arts, Langford’s once again at the helm of a vastly challenging production: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Written by Peter Parnell with music/lyrics by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, it’s based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel and the 1996 Disney animated film. Featuring a huge, dedicated company, this production closes PCA’s season in grand fashion.

The stage musical, with its reworked version of the animated film’s score, premiered in Berlin in 1999 and ran for three years; the revised North American premiere was staged at La Jolla Playhouse in 2014. Critics quickly observed how its Disney branding posed problematic: the stage version is far from Disney’s traditional family-friendly fare, truer to Hugo’s original dark tragedy. Note that PCA’s production has not compromised the artistic integrity of the work and is best suited for ages 10 nd older.

The tale is familiar: In 1482 Paris, the deformed bell ringer, Quasimodo has been imprisoned in Notre Dame’s tower his entire life by his adoptive uncle, the sanctimonious Dom Claude Frollo. When Quasimodo finally ventures out into the real world, he encounters cruelty, but also befriends the gypsy dancer, Esmeralda — with whom Frollo becomes obsessed. What results is a story of love, lust, humanity and inhumanity. The themes of tolerance, social conscience, and moral responsibility in the face of evil are as relevant and thought-provoking today as in ages past.

Jeremy Zuhlke in the title role is spectacular, giving a heartbreaking interpretation of a tortured soul who blossoms when shown kindness. With his unique, rangy tenor, honest commitment to character, and excellent physical and vocal control, Zuhlke’s Quasimodo is gentle but with a simmering strength underneath.

Leah Morales is delicately lovely — but appropriately strong-willed and insightful — as Esmeralda. Her prayerful solo, “God Help the Outcasts” is a highlight. As Phoebus, Michael Nache displays a crystal clear tenor and creates a Captain of the Guard who’s charming and confident without crossing the line into irritating pomposity. Morales and Nache, who played Eponine and Marius in PCA’s 2014 production of “Les Misérables”, again have wonderful chemistry, showcasing perfectly blended vocals in the achingly poignant “Someday.”

Daniel Cadena brings twinkled-eyed mischievousness and welcomed moments of energetic levity as Clopin, King of the Gypsies. Logan Wolfe leaves an impression as both Jehan, the archdeacon’s wayward brother, and Frederic Charlus, Phoebus’s loyal lieutenant. Talented stage veteran April Manchester-Miller is woefully underused in a curious cameo as the statue of a beheaded priest. Silvery-voiced Emma Steverson (Florika), Greg James (Father Dupin), Frank Malle (King Louis XI), and long-time local thespians Cheri Echard (Madame) and Brian Martinez (Tribunal) are all solid supporting characters.

The pivotal role of Frollo requires balance: played strictly as a mustache-twirling villain, he’s tedious one-note. Underplayed, he won’t reach the corrupt depths in his soul sparked by his lustful desire.

Darrell Rowader’s beautifully sung Frollo is initially parentally stern, bordering on tired resignation. But his trajectory takes an abrupt turn during the “Feast of Fools” scene, when Frollo’s sadistic cruelty is suddenly and shockingly overt. From here, Rowader systematically conveys the darkening nature of Frollo through its final moments of tyrannical, religious fervor without back-pedaling. It’s a subtle, slow burn, but it works.

Kudos to the bustling members of the ensemble, who provide detailed narration for the story’s harder-to-stage passages, in addition to portraying gypsies, gargoyles and more. Special recognition to Sarah Ross and Andrew Strachen, who, regardless of a dress rehearsal’s distractions, were consistently “in the moment” onstage with engaging characterizations.

Masterful vocal work is provided by an omnipresent, 16-member choir, positioned unobtrusively upstage and lending full, rich sound to the score’s extensive choral material.

The immense, multi-level unit set, well-designed by David Solomon and Don Langford, makes for lightning fast scene changes and maximizes PCA’s quirky stage space.

As presented by PCA, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” remains a haunting and timeless plea for compassion, told in convincing theatricality. Twelve performances, through June 16: or (928) 445-3286.

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