As the Memorial Opera House in Valparaiso prepares to open it’s 125th anniversary season with Victor Hugo’s epic story of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, costars Jeremiah Mellen and Sheree Wheeler-Gudeman both agree that the centuries-old tale still carries a message that holds true to this day.
Although originally written as a novel by Hugo in 1831, many audiences still know the tale of Quasimodo from Disney’s 1996 animated film version. However, Wheeler-Gudeman, who plays Esmeralda in this local production, wants audiences to know that the Memorial Opera House’s version, though still family-friendly, carries more of the darker undertones that are present in the book.
“It’s sort of a Disney type of show, but it’s very thought provoking,” says Mellen, who will be taking center stage as Quasimodo when the play opens its doors to the public on February 16.
This is only Mellen’s fourth musical, as he is relatively new to the world of theater. Wheeler-Gudeman, however, has been in the business since she starred in a version of Annie as a kid in Valparaiso.
“I’ve played so many leads on this stage, and in 1998, I was part of the whole remodel to the theater,” Wheeler-Gudeman says. “So, this place is really special to me.”
Despite the separation regarding years of theater experience, both actors agree that the weight of this particular production’s message is one that all audiences can learn something from.
“In life in general, if you’re different from someone in any way, there’s that chance people are going to make fun of you for things that you have no control over,” Mellen says.
Both actors believe that the play is an opportunity for audiences to be reminded of the value in carrying an open mindset and treating people with respect and dignity. Perhaps the reason they are so passionate about this particular play and the underyling messages within it is because of how deeply each of them relates to the characters they portray.
“There's a moment in the first act where the crowd has made Quasimodo the king of the Feast of Fools, and then they turn around and they’re awful to him,” says Wheeler-Gudeman, as she goes on to explain how her character steps in and stands up for Quasimodo. “And the second after Esmeralda stands up for him, the whole crowd turns on her, and that’s very much like my real life.”
“We are pulling from our life experiences where both of us have been made to feel different than everybody else or less than someone else,” says Mellen. “I think that on the level Quasimodo and Esmeralda connect is similar to how we’ve connected, as Jeremiah and Sheree.”
The pair first met back in 2014, but truly got the opportunity to develop their friendship when they costarred in another Disney musical, Beauty and the Beast, at the Marian Theatre Guild in Whiting. Mellen, (with the help of seven-inch platform boots), played the role of the beast, with Wheeler-Gudeman again alongside him as Belle.
“Through doing Beauty and the Beast, we’ve established a friendship, and I feel that the audience is going to feel that connection that we have with one another on stage for this musical,” says Mellen. “There’s points in this new show where aspects of our actual lives are being played out.”
In addition to the unique authenticity that this duo’s genuine connection and friendship will bring to the musical, the play will also wow audiences with its powerful score, which will be brought to life by a full on-stage choir - something not so common even in Broadway tour acts. It's safe to say that between the personal connection that the actors have with each other and with their characters, the plot’s relevance to modern issues, and the sweeping music behind the production, Region residents who come to see the performance during February 16 through March 4 sure are in for a real treat.
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Valparaiso, IN 46383
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