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vancouverplays review


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— Ava Jane Markus, Ron Pederson and cast in Catalyst Theatre's Hunchback. Photo by Layla Hyde, foto source, Fort McMurray.

Adapted from Victor Hugo by Jonathan Christenson and Bretta Gerecke
Catalyst Theatre
Vancouver Playhouse
Feb. 18-Mar. 10
From $45
604-873-3311 or

Edmonton’s Catalyst Theatre specializes in Gothic/Romantic musical spectacles—Frankenstein in 2008, the Edgar Allan Poe show Nevermore in 2010, and now a killer adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Vancouver visits from Catalyst have become must-see events, in the same league as the latest from Ronnie Burkett or Robert Lepage. Co-presented by the Playhouse and The Cultch, Hunchback is Catalyst’s best offering yet: Tim Burton meets Mad Max meets Les Miz.

The Catalyst formula combines song, recorded music and narration in a strikingly postmodern, carnivalesque visual style. The prime movers are writer/director/composer Jonathan Christenson and Bretta Gerecke—probably the best all-around designer in Canada today—who does set, costumes and lights. Together with choreographer Laura Krewski, musical director Don Horsburgh, sound designer Wade Staples and a stellar cast, they’ve created a Hunchback that is jaw-droppingly good.
Narrated, mostly in song, by Pierre Gringoire (lithe Jeremy Bauming), the epic story unfolds in 15th century Paris where horribly ugly foundling Quasimodo, who will grow up to be the hunchback, is adopted by the Archdeacon of Notre Dame cathedral. The Archdeacon falls in love with gypsy dancer La Esmerelda, who in turn falls for vain Captain Phoebus. Many adventures and misadventures ensue, including  torture and revolution. The lost are found, the innocent killed, and Quasimodo rings the glorious cathedral bells.
Christenson’s adaptation vividly captures the sweep and eventfulness of Hugo’s tale—a little too literally in the long second act—and his songs are consistently tuneful and clever. The score, often reminiscent of another Hugo adaptation, Les Misérables, demands some strong voices. Fortunately, Hunchback is blessed with them, especially in Ron Pederson as Quasimodo, who sings like an angel; Scott Walters, the Archdeacon; and narrator Bauming.

Ava Jane Markus as La Esmerelda doesn’t much sing but is an exciting dancer and an excellent actor. Andrew Cohen, Molly Flood, Beth Graham and Robert Markus round out the talented ensemble.

Gerecke has designed a very cool set of three-legged metal arches suggestive of cathedral towers, and she uses coloured lighting to great effect. But her costumes are simply astonishing. They feature large, flamboyant details over a cyber-punk base. A few of the most memorable: Phoebus’ gigantic coxcomb headdress; the four-foot-long fingernails of a long-grieving mother; Quasimodo’s crocodile-tail hump; the Archdeacon’s long silver vestments and giant platform shoes; La Esmerelda’s white gown, looking as if it’s been gnawed by a hundred hungry mice.

Vancouver has become a great musical theatre town but Hunchback shows us that we still have something to learn from our neighbours to the northeast.                                                                                                                          

Jerry Wasserman