It's unlikely that anyone attended Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (which ran Aug. 17-18 at the Pike Performing Arts Center) with any goal in mind except to see choreographed dancers in graceful, compelling action. Yet other factors come into play beyond the foot- and body-work, and those factors, for good or ill, can enhance or undermine the dancers' work.
Take lighting design. In this case, the masterful work of lighting designer Ryan Koharchik turned a minimal set (usually a requisite with large-cast dance pieces) into a varied world. And costumes: Gregory Hancock clearly has the whole visual experience in mind. The costumes effectively differentiated the individuals while, when necessary, helping to tie groups together.
If only the music worked as well. Rather than enhance the work, it tied chains to this otherwise strong "Hunchback." The score came from both the French and English language versions of "Notre Dame de Paris," a 1998 stage musical also taken from Victor Hugo's novel. Co-opting the score from someone else's interpretation gives an unfortunate secondhand, derivative quality to Hancock's vision. It's a shame, since his varied, subtle and, when necessary, explosively big choreography deserved better.
The bombastic, histrionic music does add a "Les Mis"-like gravitas to the proceedings, which would be fine if there were no singing voices involved. Unfortunately, the trite lyrics of "Notre Dame de Paris" robbed Hancock's talented dancers of the opportunity to set the emotional tone.
As Quasimodo, Martin Casanova was heartbreaking, adding a twist of the leg here, an aversion of the eyes there to show us the physical limitations of the deformed bellringer while capturing his inner spirit through soaring athletic movement. It worked when the singing was in French (which I don't speak, making the voice just another instrument). When in English, though, the lyrics worked against his complex performance. In the second act, the magic of his beautiful pas de deux with Esmeralda (Hancock troupe vet Christine Colquitt in her farewell performance) was quickly broken by yet another "I'm so ugly/you're so beautiful" overstatement on the soundtrack.
At Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, between the sliced roast and curtain time, a member of the company invariably takes the stage to welcome the crowd and announce all of the audience birthdays. More often than not, there are also a couple of 25-, 40-, and 50-year wedding anniversaries for all to applaud.
So what's a nice, conservative, God-fearing theater audience doing hissing a man trying to shut down a brothel?
I'm not sure-but the audience has as good a time at "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" as any of the johns on stage.
Despite the scanty outfits, the provocative choreography, the occasional choice words and the racy title, this play proves less about morals and more about us vs. them. The "us" in this case is the small town whose biggest business is the titular pleasure dome. The "them" is a muckracking TV reporter, a hypocritical governor, and a scandal-happy mass media. And the show-and its current Beef & Boards production-does a remarkable job of getting the audience on the side of Miss Mona and her stable of ladies.
To be sure, it's an oddly shaped musical. A conflict is set up in the first act leading to a confrontation-free second. The songs-by Carol Hall-always seem just short of memorable and the characters range from slyly winning (James Anthony makes the most of Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd's worldweary aggravation) to one-dimensionally cartoonish (haven't we seen enough evangelist-like characters in bad toupees?).
The Broadway version was celebrated for its Tommy Tune choreography. B&B staple Doug King has the dance directing chores here and maximizes the limited space. His work-and that of the cast-is particularly fun in a showstopper in which the Texas Aggies do some fancy footwork while changing from football uniforms into their "heading-to-the-whorehouse" duds.
This production doesn't make the case that the show itself belongs on anyone's best list. But the fact B&B's company of pros blows away the awful Ann-Margret/Gary Sandy national tour of the show that played Clowes Hall a few seasons back does prove that sometimes "us" knows better than "them."