When Sean Kelly announced last year that the Camas High School drama department would produce and perform “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” as its annual musical the following spring, his students weren’t overly enthusiastic about the choice.
One of the reasons for the lukewarm reception, he surmised, was because of the fact that “Hunchback” can be a tricky play to cast, mainly because there’s only one notable female role — Esmeralda, a young gypsy of ethnic descent. Kelly, the school’s drama teacher and play’s director, thought that some students just didn’t see opportunities as far as casting was concerned, especially because of the fact that the department usually has more girls than boys.
But “since the initial hesitation, they really started to embrace the show,” according to Kelly.
“When I told them why I wanted to tell this story and why I wanted this to be our show this year, they got behind it and really understood it and said, ‘Yeah, that’s something that I want to do.’ I’m very pleased with how they came around on that,” he said. “They have been pushing the pedal to the metal ever since.”
They’ll stage the play six times during the next two weeks at the Camas High School theater, with the first show being held Thursday, March 14. All performances will begin at 7 p.m.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is a musical based on the 1831 novel of the same name by Victor Hugo with songs from the 1996 Walt Disney Animation Studios film adaptation.
“It’s based on story theater, which is a contemporary descendant of a long tradition in theater of really simple staging and simple sets and simple execution,” Kelly said. “(There’s) not a lot of props, not a lot of big scene changes. The actors play multiple characters in some circumstances, and the entire story is told by the ensemble, which is an entire group of actors on stage. You get the feeling that watching a play like this that anyone in the ensemble could step out and play the lead roles. We start with the ensemble and we end with the ensemble, and it’s a pretty powerful storytelling medium.”
The play, set in 15th-century Paris, deals with topics such as racism and prejudice, physical and emotional disabilities, post-traumatic stress syndrome and all-consuming desires for power and control.
“There are some moments in the show that will (elicit) some signs of understanding and gasps of discovery,” Kelly said. “The script opens with a question: ‘What makes a monster and what makes a man?’ It also ends with that question. The whole thing is framed by this idea of what we look upon and see as monstrous might not be what the true monstrosity is, and judging something by its appearance is obviously a bad idea. I think this is a really relevant thing.”
One of the biggest challenges from the cast members’ perspective has been mastering the music, which features a fair amount of Latin.
“The songs have been difficult, and there’s a bunch of parts because it’s written for a big choir, so it’s difficult for everyone to learn their parts and sing their parts together,” said sophomore Tommy Beale, who plays a soldier named Frederic. “Almost all of (the play) is songs, and we have to memorize all these songs and all these different parts and all these different words that I don’t even know what they mean.”
Sophomore Annika King, who plays a citizen, featured dancer and ensemble member, hopes that audiences appreciate “the little things” that the actors have injected into the play.
“There’s a moment in ‘On Top of the World’ when Quasimodo and Esmeralda exchange a few words in sign language as they sing because that’s what Quasimodo knows because he’s deaf,” King said. “It’s a really good moment, but it goes by so quickly if you’re not watching their hands. There are little things like that throughout the show that I really want people to happen to look at at the right time, because they make it (feel alive).”
King began acting in elementary school productions, then took a lead role in Skyridge Middle School’s performance of “Seussical The Musical Jr.” two years ago. Last year she had a part in the theater’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors.”
“There are people in this department that I don’t see very often outside of doing musicals,” King said. “There’s a different kind of air around the department where you basically make friends by inserting yourself into their conversations, and there’s just not quite as much anxiety around trying to talk to somebody.”
Beale decided to turn out for theater as an eighth-grader and earned a lead role in “Seussical.” (“My mom said, ‘You can do track or you can do the play.’ I didn’t want to do track because I don’t want to run,” he said.) He also earned a role in “Little Shop of Horrors” last year.
“I like seeing it come together right around this time,” he said Monday, three days before opening night. “At the beginning it’s very segregated, (but) then we have to bring it together in these last two weeks. This week it’s going to be really great to be able to do the whole show and see everything come together and have it flow seamlessly.”
There’s been some obstacles for the crew members to overcome as well.
“The weather’s been a nightmare,” said junior Alex Gilbertson, the assistant stage manager. “We had to cancel our tech rehearsal due to the snow days, and we had to cancel one of our set constructions. That put us back really far, so I stayed late along with a couple other parent volunteers and a couple kids involved with the production (and) built this whole floor, the platform that’s raised up, all in one night. It’s definitely a lot of work, and it’s definitely stressful, (but we) have to get stuff done. We can’t delay opening night.”
Gilbertson has been involved with the theater department since his freshman year, when he originally wanted to try out for the school’s production of “Cinderella” but “chickened out.”
“Then I became a crew member, and I love being on crew. It’s really fun to be a part of that cog that (makes) everything work,” said Gilbertson, who hopes to parlay his theater experience into a career involving arena work, project management or engineering. “One thing I really enjoy is being able to create. I love to use my hands and I love to build.”
Gilbertson, King, Beale and Kelly agreed that this year has been a great one for the theater department. Kelly noted that five of the eight performances of “MacBeth” last fall were sold out, “a phenomenal achievement.”
“The kids have learned so much about different performance styles,” Kelly said. “‘MacBeth’ was in the round, and some of them had never performed in that environment before. They discovered a love for it. We’ve had some amazing breakthroughs from individual actors and as a group. I’m really impressed with how everyone’s done this year. It’s been a phenomenal year of growth. I like to challenge my kids. That’s the goal. I don’t believe you get anywhere unless you push them hard, and these kids rose to the occasion.”