Out Of The Darkness: AOP actor Aaron Young puts heart in ‘Hunchback’

Out Of The Darkness: AOP actor Aaron Young puts heart in ‘Hunchback’
April Wallace

If you grew up singing along to the Disney animated film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” then Arts One Presents has a treat for you!

This year’s summer musical is based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, but filled with songs from the 1996 Disney film. Both explore the life of Quasimodo, the young man raised in the bell towers of Notre Dame who begins to make his way into the world and falls in love.

Arts One Presents will open the show, directed by Julie Gabel, on July 21 at the Pat Ellison Performing Arts Center on the Don Tyson School of Innovation campus in Springdale.

“If people come expecting the animated movie on stage, that’s not what they’re going to get,” says Aaron Young, the actor/singer portraying Quasimodo. “Musically, that’s a lot of what’s on stage, but this show fuses what the animated movie accomplished and goes back to its book roots.”

It’s more accurate to Hugo’s original version with gory moments, for instance.

To set the scene in the big, dark cathedral, Taylor Dolan, performing arts program manager for AOP, says a couple of the theatrical curtains will be replaced with enormous tarps painted to look like stone walls. The sets are entirely charcoal gray, as are many of the costumes designed by Sarah Nickerson.

“It gives off the austerity of Gothic, cathedral walls and life (in it) with pops of color and costumes,” Dolan says.

The centerpiece of the stage is a jungle gym with stairs, ladders and railings that echo the Gothic look to give Quasimodo an avenue for swinging on parts of the cathedral, much like the visuals of the animated film. Young says climbing is a pivotal part of his character’s life growing up in the cathedral, and he was delighted to realize he could climb throughout the production.

While everything is heavily based in the cathedral, there’s still seven other settings — brought to life by set pieces rolled on stage at the right times.

Young says the Quasimodo costume includes period-appropriate clothing but does not involve prosthetics; rather, most of the work to portray his physical appearance is done with how he holds his body. The rest is a minimal approach to how Quasimodo must have maintained his hair and clothing while living in the bell tower — ratty clothing, disheveled hair and such.

“We felt it was disingenuous to the disability community to make a caricature” of a hunchback, Dolan says. “There’s no way to accurately portray that, so we focused on the similarities.”

“Anything we could do that way (to create a physical hunchback) won’t live up to the imagination,” Young says.

Standing hunched over for long periods of time makes for an extra challenge while trying to belt out each number of the show, since posture is important for singing.

“With this role, it’s challenging vocally,” Young says. “Musically, it’s very hard and physically, when you’re bent over,” he explains, noting that you have to stay in good shape to keep that up. Tonally, many of the notes he has to hit are very high. And singing powerfully requires keeping good breath control and breathing from your diaphragm — all hard work while doubled over. Between rehearsals, Young has to be mindful of not straining his voice and staying hydrated so his vocal chords stay healthy.

“There are many reasons this role is perfect for him,” Dolan says. “His vocal capabilities are phenomenal; he brings such control and precision to incredibly difficult songs. There’s never a concern of whether he’s going to get there.”

Dolan says Young has a particular challenge with the arrangement of the musical, which has the most difficult songs toward the end. Most other productions have the hardest songs early on, so the singers aren’t so fatigued.

Despite the difficulties to making this production work, Young says the opportunity to embody a kind soul like Quasimodo is a unique experience.

“Living this character every day takes a toll,” he says. “It’s definitely the most challenging role, but it’s incredibly rewarding. The character has a unique outlook on life.”

“Aaron is an incredibly kind and inclusive human being,” Dolan says. “What he brings to this character is truly loving this world and a desire to make it a better place. To understand Quasi, you have to know he’s the best of us, kind and caring. It’s a very natural fit for Aaron, and he does it beautifully.”



‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’

WHEN — 7 p.m. July 22-23; 3 p.m. July 24; again July 28-31

WHERE — Pat Ellison Performing Arts Center at Don Tyson School of Innovation, 2667 Hylton Road in Springdale

COST — $20-$35

INFO — artsonepresents.org

Categories: Theater