Production: Akshar School

Director: Dana Lai Roy

Writers and composer: Peter Parnell, Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz

Whoever says that English theatre in Kolkata has dropped into the doldrums has either not seen the glorious musicals helmed by the Lai Roy family or believes (erroneously) that school productions cannot match regular theatre. The Lai Roy hallmark guarantees the highest standard of excellence in English musicals anywhere in India. Akshar’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame proves my point amply, while celebrating grandly the institution’s twentieth anniversary.


Akshar is a truly special school inclusive of special children, and Victor Hugo’s classic tragic novel is about a special youth who loves a girl from a special community—a perfect choice of text. But Akshar’s Hunchback didn’t stop there. Starved that we are of the latest live art from abroad, Dana Roy picked a play that, in its American version, opened as recently as 2014. And it did not even reach Broadway, breaking the myth that you can have an acclaimed hit only if you make it on Broadway.


True, we may have watched the original Disney film, from where the dramatization borrowed Alan Menken’s score and Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics, but we cannot possibly compare an animated movie with stage performance. For a veteran like me, it was an amazing experience to feel the energy of a 54-strong children’s choir singing live in complex, often classical-based harmonies, led by conductors Subhagata Singha and Shireen Ghosh, their arms flailing to synchronized precision in the orchestra pit, and nobody missing a note.


Remember, Akshar is not that big a school, so many choristers doubled in other roles (including ten gargoyles!). We saw 13 charismatic gypsies, an equal number of townsfolk at market, ten roisterous tavern dwellers, half a dozen lords and ladies, another half a dozen soldiers, and four narrators, all expertly directed by Dana in detailed simultaneous staging to depict microcosms of bustling city life. Three choreographers—Smriti Agarwal, Kirsten Samuels, Rupsha Chatterjee—made the dance sequences both challenging and awesome, demonstrating that Akshar students can move with the best anywhere. Tom Lai’s double-decker cathedral set imposed with its solidity, yet spaciousness.


And then the principals: Quasimodo shared by five actors (who also used sign language) presented his character virtually at different ages; Debaroti Bit as Esmeralda displayed a consummate stage presence, dancing and singing impeccably as if born for musicals; Rishi Sood, the villainous archdeacon, expressed a schizophrenic split between religious zeal and intolerance of others, between his love for Quasimodo and his hatred of, and lust for, Esmeralda. My only niggle is that the events at the end flashed by in a blur, when they should have received in-depth treatment. Encore, Akshar!


(From The Times of India, 21 July 2018)