Entertainment & Life

Deaf actor in lead role for Music Circus’ darker ‘Hunchback’

Artistic director Glenn Casale instructs deaf actor John McGinty, who is playing Quasimodo, with the aid of sign language interpreter Tracy Brennan, during a rehearsal for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
Artistic director Glenn Casale instructs deaf actor John McGinty, who is playing Quasimodo, with the aid of sign language interpreter Tracy Brennan, during a rehearsal for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” aseng@sacbee.com

Even though the venerable Music Circus isn’t usually described as experimental, the company does pick its spots and take exciting artistic chances.

To close its 66th season, Music Circus will produce the little-seen musical version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” The only stage collaboration between American musical theater giants Alan Menken (“Disney’s The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast”) and Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked” and “Pippin”), the piece has only been done twice before in the United States. Music Circus is one of only three companies Disney Theatricals has licensed the musical to in 2016. Upping the ante even more, director Glenn Casale has cast deaf actor John McGinty in the lead role of Quasimodo, the deaf bell ringer of Notre Dame. This will be the first time a deaf actor has played the role.

McGinty is the rare professional actor who has no professional training, but has some prestigious theaters on his résumé, having performed with the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. At both theaters he played the role of Billy, a young deaf man outgrowing his dysfunctional family, in the drama “Tribes.” The play was produced here at Capital Stage last year.

McGinity grew up in a hearing family who all knew American Sign Language so they could communicate with him. McGinty said his family members were “not at all mean” like the family in “Tribes,” but the experience of Billy in the play was similar to his own. McGinty was studying finance in college when an audition for “Pippin” at the Deaf West Theatre changed his life. We talked with the assistance of sign language interpreter Tracy Brennan.

“I thought, I’m just going to do the audition for the fun of it,” McGinty said.

“When I got it I thought, ‘OK, great’ but when I did it, that changed my life. It made me realize this is what my passion is compared to working 9 to 5 at Merrill Lynch. It was just like the universe was telling me this is what I want. I just followed my gut,” McGinty said

“Having John in the play changes the whole game,” Casale said. “The authenticity that he brings to it is what really elevates the play for me.”

The original French Gothic Romantic novel by Victor Hugo was published in 1831. The tragic story set in Paris in the late Middle Ages, during the reign of Louis XI, centers on the gypsy Esmeralda and the several men infatuated with her – the soldier Captain Phoebus, poet Pierre Gringoire, Archdeacon Claude Frollo and, finally, Quasimodo.

There have been numerous adaptations of the book into all performance genres, including recently a somewhat sunny Disney movie. This particular musical version hews much closer to the novel’s darker tone and narrative than the animated movie.

“It is not unlike ‘Les Miz’ or ‘Miss Saigon’ sung through for the most part, driven by story,” Casale said. “And I think that’s the key, to tell a clear story.”

Around McGinty, Casale has assembled the type of “A-list” New York-based cast one might expect for a Broadway production or a first-run national tour. Included are Lesli Margherita as Esmerelda, Mark Jacoby as Dom Claude Frollo, Andrew Foote as Clopin, and Eric Kunze as Captain Phoebus de Martin. The production will move largely intact to La Mirada Theatre in Southern California, Sept. 16 to Oct. 9, though Margherita returns to the Broadway cast of “Matilda.” The 19-person choir is directed by Omari Tau, director of opera theatre at Sacramento State.

With Disney’s permission, Casale has altered a few elements in the production to help facilitate his vision of the story.

“What I’ve done is set up this special relationship between Quasimodo and the statues that surround him,” Casale said.

“The gargoyles that are on the top of Notre Dame and the statues become his confidants. He can speak to them, he can sign to them.”

McGinty does not sing and actor Jim Hogan will be onstage as the singing voice of Quasimodo.

Casale has wanted to work with McGinty since first meeting the young actor at the casual workshop reading of a play three years ago. When McGinty auditioned for Quasimodo, Casale saw something special he wanted to put on stage.

“What was interesting to me was that not only was it an external vision, which a lot of actors came in and did the physicality and all of that, but there’s an internal connection that he has with the material,” Casale said. “It’s truthful – it’s not acting.”

McGinity was not sure what exactly was going to be asked of him when he accepted the invitation to audition for the role, but he prepared as much as possible.

“I knew the story. I read Hugo’s novel and it was clear Quasimodo was deaf,” McGinty said.

“First I’m thinking, ‘What are they thinking?’ Are they expecting me to come in and sing? If I come in and sing, they’re going be like, ‘Agghh!’ ” McGinty plugged his ears and shook his head.

“I tried to bring the authenticity of the character because this production is not following the Disney movie, this is not following the novel,” McGinty said. “I’m going to show what Quasimodo would communicate in the real world. How he would speak even though his speech is not clear.”

Casale has been fascinated with story since seeing the Charles Laughton movie version as a child.

“A brilliant movie, so moving. That’s what I think this has to be,” Casale said. “That novel on stage. It’s about class differences, the church and state, unrequited love, outcasts, people who are different. A character finally stepping outside and trying to change to his life.”

McGinty thinks productions like this can open eyes to using deaf and hearing-impaired actors in more varied ways.

“I am hoping this will hopefully allow Disney to open more doors and write deaf characters for whatever the next production is,” McGinty said. “I think that is so important and I need to thank Disney and everyone for making this happen – it’s huge.”

Marcus Crowder: 916-321-1120, @marcuscrowder

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

What: A Music Circus production. With music by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, directed by Glenn Casale. With John McGinty as Quasimodo, Lesli Margherita as Esmerelda, Mark Jacoby as Dom Claude Frollo, Andrew Foote as Clopin, and Eric Kunze as Captain Phoebus de Martin.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 23, through Saturday, Aug. 27,, 2 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25, and Saturday, Aug. 27, 3 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 28.

Where: Wells Fargo Pavilion, 1419 H St., Sacramento

Information: 916-557-1999, SacramentoMusicCircus.com, or Tickets.com