During the song “Hellfire” in the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts’ production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” archdeacon Dom Claude Frollo toils between his obsessive lust for the gypsy Esmerelda, and his dogmatic, “holier-than-thou” morals.
“It’s not my fault, I’m not to blame—it is the gypsy girl, the witch who sent this flame,” Frollo sings.
In a powerful retort, a chorus of monk-robed priests and congregants contradict Frollo in Latin: “Mea culpa, my fault, through my most grievous fault, mea maxima culpa!”
“The music, even more than the words, condemns Frollo,” said Amy Bailey, a member of the Stafford Regional Choral Society who sings in the on-stage choir for the production. “It’s incredible how the music itself exposes how self-righteous Frollo is.”
Her husband, Leonard Bailey, also sings with the choir. “It’s pretty deep material—this is Victor Hugo, after all—but so splendidly presented,” he said. “The message is very relevant for where we are culturally today, with this character who hates this whole group of people because they’re different. The message is ultimately a hopeful one, because Frollo doesn’t win.”
The Baileys, who have been singing with the SRCS for about five years, are grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the Riverside play. “It’s an incredible experience musically, very challenging,” Amy Bailey said. “But we’re both finding it very interesting and exciting.”
“Once we knew we would be doing [Hunchback], we knew the choir would be a vital part,” said Patrick A’Hearn, Riverside’s artistic director, who also directs the production. “When you hear the choir on top of the cast, the sound is unbelievable, it sends shivers up your spine.”
The 18-member cast and nine-piece orchestra, joined by the 20-person choir, makes “Hunchback” the biggest production in the dinner theater’s history.
A’Hearn said they considered auditioning a choir, but decided finally to reach out to SRCS.
“I love being able to involve a local choir,” he said. “We hope it’s one way the community can get to know us better and be proud of what we do here in their city.”
The SRCS, established in the 1990s, performs at least two free concerts per year and one annual fundraiser. This year the Hunchback performances—40 in all—will replace the fundraiser. In exchange, Riverside will make a donation to the choir.
Up to 60 singers may participate in SRCS’s biggest event of the year, its annual presentation in December of Handel’s Messiah. About 40 choir members agreed to learn the music for Hunchback and participate in performances. Choir manager Wendy Colby arranges the schedule.
“We rotate the choir members through,” Colby said. “These aren’t professional actors, they have work and lives outside the choir, so we knew it might be a challenge to make sure we have 20 singers for each performance.”
However, after the choir sang with the cast and orchestra for the first time, filling those slots has not been a problem at all.
“It ended up being way more fun than most anticipated,” Colby said. “Even though the music is difficult, we’re delighted to find we can keep up and the whole experience is amazing—we’re having a blast.”
The production’s musical director, Garrett Jones, said he’s been thrilled to work with the choir, adding that they have been very quick to make the adjustments he requires.
“They give the show a depth and nuance you wouldn’t have otherwise,” Jones said, remarking that the choir’s passion for the music is evident in their performance. “They provide that extra layer of sparkle.”
Amy Bailey works as an administrative assistant at Colonial Forge High School and Leonard Bailey is pastor at Hope of Christ Presbyterian Church in Stafford. They have four children and a busy life, but they plan to sing in at least half the Hunchback performances.
“I won’t lie, it isn’t easy sitting on a backless wooden bench for long periods of time using muscles I never knew I had,” Amy Bailey laughed. The show runs about three hours, including a 20-minute intermission.
“We sit there and don’t move and stare into the darkness, thinking, ‘Somebody out there might be looking at me,’” said Leonard Bailey. “It can be interesting for some of us who have a hard time holding still.”
Even so, the Baileys said, they wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.
“[Leonard and I] have been singing together since we were in grade school,” Amy Bailey said.
“[Hunchback] is a beautiful story, beautifully performed—we are enjoying being some small part of that,” Leonard Bailey said. “I still get choked up in certain parts as I watch the actors—they’re very talented, they make the emotions new and raw every time.”
“I couldn’t imagine doing the show without them, it wouldn’t be right,” Jones said. “It wouldn’t be the show it was meant to be without the choir.”