Top 10 Reasons to Drop Everything and see HUNCHBACK at Aurora/Theatrical Outfit Yesterday

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Got any plans this weekend? Perfect. Go see a musical. And make it The Hunchback of Notre Dame at the Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville.

Aurora and Theatrical Outfit’s joint production of the musical adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame based on the songs from the Disney movie and classic Victor Hugo novel of the same name opened mid-July at Aurora and will transfer to the Rialto Center for the Arts in September. It’s beautiful. It’s dark. It’s perfection. Despite its “Disney” tag, there’s nothing fluffy Disney or kid-friendly about this wonderful musical. At its core, it is a true adaptation of Hugo’s book, representing harsh realities of living in a broken world.

Whatever you do, don’t miss The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and here is why.

1. It’s basically the movie on steroids.

The Hunchback movie has always disappointed me. It brought us some of Alan Menken’s very best music coupled with a genre-ambiguous story that sits homeless between depressing and happy ending-driven. The songs were fantastic, eagerly awaiting an expanded score and overhauled book. Enter the 2014 stage adaptation at La Jolla Playhouse. With a book by Peter Parnell and about a zillion extra songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, this new Hunchback ditches the wishy-washy attempt at child appeal and leans boldly into a genuine take on this dark, sad story. More songs. More backstory. Richer plot. Huge kudos to Aurora/Theatrical Outfit for choosing a rock solid musical.

2. “Top of the World,” “In a Place of Miracles,” and many more new tunes. 

The 10+ added songs- many more if you count the frequent Latin choir background- bring a fresh wholeness to the score. Like Disney’s good stage musicals, the extra tunes give audiences a new favorite song from a musical they thought they knew so well. You’ll leave the theatre with “Top of the World” in your head and really might cry over “In a Place of Miracles.”

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3. That set though!

For those who watched the La Jolla production, Aurora’s set will look familiar. Designed by Shannon Robert, the whole stage is the interior of Notre Dame itself, complete with a painted floor and stone statues of saints (don’t worry- I hate myself for that alliteration as much as you do). But better than La Jolla’s, Robert ingeniously depicts Quasimodo “gazing at the people down below” by using a freestanding staircase that easily swivels about the stage. With no suspension of disbelief, the audience often sees Quasi high atop a church tower overlooking Paris, especially effective in “Out There” and “Top of the World.” As an added bonus, nostalgic Disney fans get to see this Quasi perform his signature parapet slide which, as ’90s Disney VHS tapes remind us, appeared in every preview for Hunchback ever.

4. Themes on themes on themes.

Hunchback is largely plot-driven, taking the audience through a neverending sea of emotions. These are evoked through the inventive direction of Justin Anderson as he pulls out many poignant themes, including the comparison between Quasimodo and his stone gargoyle friends (virtually unexplored in the La Jolla premiere), the power of those who are physically weak but emotionally strong, and of course the line that appears in both the first and final song, “What makes a monster, and what makes a man?”

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5. The hardest-working ensemble in the world.

You’d think there were 40 people in that cast. Throughout the whole show, the ensemble is ubiquitous- on stage as characters, off-stage singing in Latin as a church choir, sometimes townspeople, sometimes gypsies. Oh and sometimes gargoyle puppeteers. Discussing what a tragedy it is that Hunchback has yet to premiere on Broadway, one cast member jokingly told me, “Well I can see why! Who wants to do all this eight times a week for months? It’s exhausting!”

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6. Oh hey Lowery Brown, where have you been all my life?

As captain of the guard, Phoebus, Lowery Brown comes close to stealing the whole show. His stirring vocals particularly during “Finale” coupled with his commanding presence secure him in the ranks of Atlanta’s best. It begs the question- where have I been, that this is the first time I’ve seen this incredible talent in action?

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7. Puppets.

I’d love to have been a fly on the wall for the moment the creators of the La Jolla production decided how to handle the gargoyles. My best guess is they shrugged and said, “Meh, let’s just throw some people in grey robes and call it a day.” Were they gargoyles? Were they just saints? Lol honestly, who knows. Aurora/Theatrical Outfit’s production looks the issue square in the face and solves it. With puppets. This design is strongest during “Made of Stone,” as Quasimodo has all but lost hope. One by one, the puppeteers lay down their puppets, showing a harsh comparison between the gargoyles’ immobility and Quasimodo’s defeatism.

8. The unstoppable choreography of Ricardo Aponte.

Oh y’all, Hunchback sees Ricardo Aponte’s choreography at its finest. Composed mostly of songs sprinkled with dialogue- think The Phantom of the Opera, but shorter and with an actual plot- Aponte was busy. His stellar melding of various dance syles drives home the idea that the outcast gypsies are a melting pot of nomads from many cultures. His work brilliantly enhances the story rather than merely making a pretty spectacle to look at. The characters don’t just dance because it’s a moral imperative for musicals. They dance because that’s part of who their characters are, a rare approach that is refreshing to see right here in our city.

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9. Julissa Sabino, the only Esmeralda. 

You think you’ve seen Esmeralda, and then you see Julissa Sabino’s interpretation, and everything changes. She takes on the resilience for which the character is so well known, but she adds a distinctly feminine gentleness and quirky affectations that bring Esmeralda down from a macho, invincible gypsy to a woman who can admit her imperfections without letting them hinder her. She never sacrifices kindness for strength. Can we just go ahead and hand Sabino that Suzi Bass Award? Please and thank you.

Check out my conversation with Julissa from this summer!

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10. Haden Rider, my new favorite Quasimodo.

As Quasimodo, Rider tackles the interesting challenge of playing a man with a strong heart but a deformed, weak-looking body. With his whole being, he distinguishes so effectively the difference between the Quasimodo the world sees and the true Quasimodo in his head. We see him transform for the duration of his solos from a man with a physical impediment and raspy voice into a man with a strong posture and stunning voice. Rider’s tenor vocals are simply unmatched. He delivers “Out There” with ease, even with strep throat (as he told me was the case the first time I attended the show). Frankly, it’s an exhausting process to watch. And he does it magnificently.

You got your tickets yet?

In short, go see the show. As someone who has attended Atlanta theatre for years, I can firmly say this is the best local production I have ever seen. It’s a spectacular musical, and there could not possibly be a better version than Aurora/Theatrical Outfit’s.

Follow BwayGinger on Twitter for more Atlanta theatre news, reviews, and coffee shop live-tweets!

For more information and to purchase tickets, click here (Aurora Theatre) or here (Theatrical Outfit).

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Photo credits: Daniel Parvis

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The Guilty Pleasure Round- Musicals I Love Against All Reason

They’re not the most critically-acclaimed. They can’t claim many awards. But they’re unapologetically delightful. Weeping through a musical has its merits (oh, hey Aurora’s upcoming production of HUNCHBACK), but sometimes going to a musical means learning nothing except how long you can smile before your mouth loses all feeling. So today, let’s just have a feel-good listening party, ok? This is kind of my way of saying some musicals are better out of context. And heard rather than seen.

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  1. The Story of My Life, music and lyrics by Neil Bartram

The recipient of Ben Brantley’s most fantastic collection of zingers in the form of a review, this two-man show is indeed uncategorizable, absurd, and incredibly cheesy. It even has this weirdly dark rabbit-hole parallel to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE while unashamedly plagiarizing all of WIND BENEATH MY WINGS (the movie). In all of its unoriginal glory, listening to THE STORY OF MY LIFE is a solid hour of joy. There’s something incredibly meta about writing blog posts while listening to a musical about a writer trying to find inspiration.

Smiliest song: “The Butterfly”

Fast-track to smiles line: When you flap your wings to stretch yourself, it might seem small to you, but you change the world with everything you do.

Cringe-worthiest line: And with snow on the back of our pants, we’d wait for our angels to dance.

Image result for legally blonde the musical2. Legally Blonde, music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin

Eyerolls always accompany mention of LEGALLY BLONDE in industry circles- followed of course by one brave soul sheepishly uttering, “…but actually I really like it.” Everyone in the circle subsequently concurs and giggles with relief.

OMG you guys, a bubble-gum pop, screlt-laiden musical version of the quintessential fluffy chick flick? It’s disrespectful to everyone from Antoinette Perry to the actress playing the Star-to-Be in [name that local production of] ANNIE. In spite of it all, “So Much Better” skyrockets my confidence upon every listen. And I believe I’ve never listened to Kate Shindle sing “…best friggin shooooeeess!!” without lip syncing and believing I can conquer the world.

Smiliest song: “Legally Blonde Remix”

Fast-track to smiles line: And soon all y’all gonna know much better! I am so much better than before! [as a Southerner, I relate to the “all y’all” phrase on a spiritual level]

Cringe-worthiest line: I’m not a fool, and as a rule I do not ‘bond.’ [I’m sorry what? What the what does that even mean?]

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3. A Little Princess, music by Andrew Lippa, lyrics by Brian Crawley

The second-worst professional musical I have ever seen with my eyes- second only to a B-level tour of a knock-off Cirque du Soleil- I’d advise listening to the album, but you can skip watching it live. Without having any real clue what’s happening in the show, you find yourself happily botching the pronunciation of the African words as you dance to “Good Luck, Bonne Chance” and mirror-belting the “I want song”‘s staunch, yet never-revisited theme, “I want to live out loud.”

Smiliest song: “Let Your Heart be Your Compass”

Fast-track to smiles line: If that makes me headstrong, fine! That’s a fault I’m glad is mine!

Cringe-worthiest line: That moment Lippa rhymed “lucky” with a forced “plucky.” And the irrationally mean but secretly jealous bad guy, played by Julia Murney says it all with a straight face.

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4. Chess, music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, lyrics by Tim Rice

Speaking of NYT zingers, theatre critic-at-large of the ’80s-00s Frank Rich cuts CHESS no slack, with unsparing highlights like, “characters onstage at the Imperial yell at one another to rock music,” referring to the score as “a suite of temper tantrums,” with the “theatrical consistency of quicksand.” Speed-round, because we’re having so much fun: “drab,” “pompous pretensions,” “incoherent,” “jerry-built,” “sketchy.”

Rich’s opinions aside, I can go for the in-concert recording from 2009 in a heartbeat. Soaring duet between Idina Menzel and Josh Groban? Yes please! Even its painfully ’80s pop hit, “Bangkok” brings a smile to my face every time. Unlike some of the unabashedly feel-good aforementioned shows, this one is packed with overdramatic wannabe LES MIS tune after another. I think the smiling comes in the nostalgia created therein. And giggling ensues because it’s borderline nonsensical in every way.

Smiliest song: “Nobody’s Side”

Fast-track to smiles line: How could I leave her? Where would I go? I cross over boarders, but I’m still [something? I actually have no clue what word he says there. I’m sure it’s inspirational]

Cringe-worthiest line: And now let us dedicate ourselves to the spirit of chess:
We are one united family,
Black and white.
The game–
Our one true guiding light,
Sweeping through
The darkest corners
To express
Countries, classes,
Creeds as one,
In love of chess. [yes this is literally a hymn to chess. What is it, a game or a god?!]

Julissa Sabino Talks Returning to IN THE HEIGHTS with Aurora’s Musicals by Moonlight Series

Displaying JulissaSabino_TheatricalHS2_AMT.jpgJoyful is the best way to describe Julissa Sabino.

With enough excitement to fuel all of Metro Atlanta, this diligent actress clearly possesses a contagious passion for her work and a relentless desire to continue stretching herself as a performer. In the interview below, she shares about the process involved in returning to the role of Vanessa in Aurora’s encore performance of IN THE HEIGHTS- previously featured on BroadwayGinger as one of Atlanta’s must-see shows of the summer– and how she is more than ready to dive back in and explore the character once again.

How has it been revisiting IN THE HEIGHTS?

I think it’s always great! I got to revisit TOXIC AVENGER before, and I’m revisiting IN THE HEIGHTS, so this is my second time revisiting a show, but this show in particular is so much about community and choosing the parts of your tradition you’re going to keep with you as you move on, and which parts you’re going to leave behind. Especially the second time around, those relationships are really amplified among the characters in the script. It’s really great. It’s such an ensemble show; I don’t think there’s a small part in that. Everybody’s so integral to the community, and they all form it.

So what effect do you feel like doing it again and again over a long period of time has on the show and the way it comes out?

Gosh, I feel like it’s such a wordy show! You know? It’s not a normal musical where everything is very legato; everything’s very staccato and very fast, so I think doing it a second time and getting out of your head word-wise- our Usnavi, Diego, he’s done this show I think 3 times now, and you can see his finesse on stage. That’s the perfect word for it. His cleanliness, and finesse in the performance because he just is Usnavi at this point and doesn’t have to think about his lines. He gets to just kind of observe the world around him, which is what every actor wants to do, to go on stage and not think about what we’re doing, only observe what everyone else is giving us, and I think that’s the really cool gift of getting to do something like this a second time around.

How is the process going to be different for the concert version?

Gosh, you know, for concert versions I think always energy is the number one word, and of course you have less time to make everything really clean. Ann-Carol Pence, our wonderful leader in music she makes the show, so I know she’s going to stress our cut-offs being extremely clean because anytime you’re in a field- this sounds really nerdy- but there are no walls, there’s nothing for the sound to reverberate off of, so things can get very muddy. Everyone sounds like Ariana Grande, and you can’t understand where one word starts and the other finishes.

So diction is really important when you’re outside and making things entertaining when you’re far away in a field and not in a beautiful theatre. And then Aurora’s really nice, because you don’t get a bad seat the way it’s set up very close. There is premium seating for this event, for those who want to get closer, but I know energy is going to be a huge thing. We’re still going to do the lines, I’m sure the dances will be a little bit smaller, and stuff like that, but essentially, it’s going to be the essence of the same show. It’ll be nice to do it concert-style so we get to concentrate on the words.

It sounds like the perfect show for a concert since it’s so dense!

[IN THE HEIGHTS writer Lin-Manuel Miranda] is so presentational anyhow as a human being, and this show is his baby, so it really shows the best parts of his personality, so I think just being at a mic and just singing the show is great. Usnavi has so many funny lines, it’s just going to be really great to play those straight out to the audience.

As far as “making things entertaining from far away” like you mentioned earlier, how will you personally be doing that?

Yeah, gosh, for me, voice is so important. you can always make people watch you if you’re saying the right thing with the right intention. My hair always helps! [laughs] I’m a head-bobber. But for this is going to be all about positioning and taking equity of the stage. I think we’re on the festival’s center stage, so we’ve been on this space for a small concert before, so it will be about highlighting the people who are on stage up front. Just really using all those theatre tools we learned in college! It’s crazy, the more professional I get, the more I’m like, “Oh yeah, I should be warming up every day like my college teacher told me.” Because it really does make a difference in your work.

So what are you most looking forward to about this version?

Gosh, I guess seeing everybody again! It sounds really lame, but this is one of the most special shows to me. Everyone from our dance captain to our ensemble, they were working non-stop in rehearsal. Even when people weren’t using them, they were working backstage cleaning stuff. I’ve just never seen a process where people, no matter far the show was, they always wanted the show to be better during rehearsal and during the run. So I know that when we get together this time again, everyone’s just going to be more clean and it’s just going to be a sharper, better show.

It’s a cool opportunity for the patrons who missed it last year, because I know a lot of people missed it because we had so many nights sold out. I’m really excited to get the cast together again now that we’ve all had a year of other shows and a year to just grow and stretch our muscles. To get to do this one again will be so much easier for us.

So particularly with your character, what are you looking forward to most about stepping back into that?

Our director, Justin Anderson, I hadn’t worked with him before, but I had known him in the theatre community for a long time, and I knew he always asks a lot of his actors. So my particular task for IN THE HEIGHTS was to be more grounded. I’m very happy as a human being; joy is not hard for me to display on stage, but stability and strength while being vulnerable and not completely falling into a puddle is very hard for me because I have the inclination to want to lean towards extreme emotion.

Vanessa doesn’t really show very much emotion. That’s her face guard, how she protects herself. So I got a lot of, “That’s great, but less.” So I’m really excited to get to try that again, because I feel like as we age, we always experience different things in life, and I feel like this year, I have kind of hardened a lot, and not in a bad way, but just that I know how to deal with people and I’m not emotional all the time. So I’m really excited to visit the character now that I’ve grown, and the things that were a challenge to me before, I’m excited to tackle them now instead of being overwhelmed by them like I was the first time.

That’s so great to get a chance to revisit and see how you’ve grown and how you can apply that!

Yeah, because by the end of the run, I really felt like I got it, but I really wished that I’d had it from the beginning. So I’m excited to be able to do it for one night and just hit it right from the top. And the show is really fun! It’s not a show where afterwards you’re like, “Ugh I’m just going to go home and cry!” It’s a joy to do!

Aurora continues their Musicals by Moonlight series with IN THE HEIGHTS tonight, June 17, at the Duluth Town Green at 8pm. Aurora says, “Free to the public and part of Duluth Art Week, the show will be held on the Festival Center stage. Bring the whole family and a picnic dinner (cooler with drinks perfectly acceptable) to enjoy during the show. Lawn seating begins at 5:00pm for the 8:00pm performance. Beer and wine also available for purchase.” Click here for more information!