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An epic musical story of love, isolation and justice

  • Photo courtesy of Music to My Ears

  • Photo courtesy of Music to My Ears

By: Stephanie Derammelaere
March 13, 2020

A well-deserved standing ovation concluded The Hunchback of Notre Dame musical this weekend, produced by Music to My Ears, a Cotati-based music education center, which created this version based on Victor Hugo’s gothic novel, songs from the Disney animated feature, as well as new songs by Menken and Schwartz. The epic story of love, friendship, isolation and justice, and the true meaning of being a hero, was colorfully brought to life on stage at the new TAG building on the Rancho Cotate High School campus.  

“When I read this novel I was just floored, and when I saw the musical it was love at first watch!” said Aja Gianola-Norris, the Director of Music to My Ears who also played the beautiful gypsy  Esmerelda in the musical, and herself is an alumnus of Rancho Cotate High School. “I love the story and the music is so special and powerful.”

The musical proved to be unique in a variety of ways. First and foremost, the lead actor playing Quasimodo, Chris DeSouza, is Deaf, which is in true character with the protagonist in Victor Hugo’s novel. DeSouza, a professional actor who also grew up in Rohnert Park, also works with Deaf children at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont. The way he incorporated American Sign Language into his acting and how Ezra Hernandez, his interpreter, seamlessly wove together the script and songs was truly awe-inspiring.   

“I realized that Quasimodo is actually deaf in the book and we have this opportunity to make this role authentic and special,” says Gianola-Norris. “So many of my community members have never interacted with a Deaf person before, and they don’t know anything about Deaf culture so it seemed like a beautiful experience to make American Sign Language, which I believe belongs to all of us, hearing people included, accessible and kind of melds the performance and the music community with the deaf community.”

This is the first time that there has been a musical in Sonoma County that has featured a lead character who is Deaf. 

“The way that we do it on stage is that the Deaf actor is acting and signing the whole role and then he also has a counterpart on stage who is dressed like a statue from the Cathedral of Notre Dame who does all of the singing and speaking,” says Gianola-Norris. “Chris signs the lines but Ezra is voicing his part. Other characters also sign on stage. There are gargoyles which are Quasimodo’s personifications – parts of himself that have come to life on stage and they sign along with him. The whole cast signs the moral at the end and then there are a few other characters that sign throughout the play.”

Another unique feature of the production was the large cast of about 75 people. The musical kicked off with a song from the 30-person Notre Dame choir and the cast was a mix of professionals, community members and eleven youth from the aspiring teen program. 

“Our philosophy is that theater belongs to everyone,” says Gianola-Norris. “Anyone who wants to participate can. So, anyone who auditioned for Hunchback got in. We have this beautiful spectrum of ability on stage. We have professionals and then we have a few adults who are just community members, and this is their very first show, and then we have people that love to do community theater, but they have full-time jobs and they just do it for the love of it. It’s quite the unique community.”