Local singers get their moment on Idaho Shakespeare Festival stage

Get ready for a wall of sound. The Idaho Shakespeare Festival puts 35 voices on stage for its production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” — that’s 19 cast members and a 16-member community choir, all singing together. When a song crescendos, the sound hits you full force. It’s very powerful.

The musical based on Victor Hugo’s novel and the 1996 Disney animated film opened July 1. It tells the story of the deformed bell-ringer Quasimodo (Corey Mach) who falls in love with the beautiful Gypsy Esmeralda (Keri René Fuller). Both outcasts from society, they form a bond and their destinies become intertwined as they fight against prejudice and the harsh hierarchy led by Quasimodo’s uncle Frollo (Tom Ford).

About 30 volunteer singers from the Treasure Valley learned the intricate score. They rehearsed as a group several times and practiced on their own as well over the past three weeks, and then put it all together with the cast and chorus during last week’s technical rehearsals.

For many of the choir members, this is a chance of a lifetime, they say.

“I had it on my bucket list to perform with Idaho Shakespeare Festival, and now here I am,” says Boise’s Yvonne McCoy, a former ISF board member who sings with the Boise Philharmonic Master Chorale and the Opera Idaho chorus. “So far it has been amazing.”

McCoy is one of the vocalists who comprise choirs A, B and C, each with 16 members. Each choir performs about a third of the run, and some singers perform in two choirs. The overlap helps ensure consistency, and there are backups for each vocal part in case someone is sick or something comes up.

Why a choir?

The show’s musical creators — composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz — wrote a choir into the structure of the play to represent Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, the central setting for the drama.

The choir is on stage throughout the play, adding a rich layer to the score. Most theater companies can’t afford the production cost of hiring a professional choir. That’s one of the reasons the show never made it to Broadway. Now, regional theaters like ISF that tackle the show use volunteer community choirs.

That makes “Hunchback” a different beast in the musical-theater world, says Joel Mercier, ISF’s resident music director since 2014. He is in the pit each night playing keyboards and leading the nine-member orchestra for the production.

Mercier, who makes his home in Concord, N.H., will repeat the process with ISF’s sister company, Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland, in the fall.

“It’s a unique show,” Mercier says. “There’s not another one like it. The choir helps create the sound of the cathedral, this vast giant hall where voices echo. But I also think involving the community and bringing people together to deliver this message is important, is part of the plan. It’s what happens in the story, when the community comes together to stand up for the little guy.”

How it came together

The decision to do this show was a leap of faith for producing artistic director Charlie Fee. He didn’t know how the choir aspect would come together. This is the first time ISF has used volunteers on such a large scale. In the past the company has cast interns, often drama school students and the like, to fill out a show. But nothing like this.

Mercier and Tom Ford, an ISF actor and artistic associate, tried working with existing Treasure Valley choir groups, but because it’s summer, most aren’t in season. So, it made more sense to put something together themselves. They held open auditions in May.

“We heard some amazing people,” Ford says. “There are just so many wonderful singers in town, and they’re all ages. We have a few high school kids, and it goes up to people in their 60s.”

For the pros at ISF, the dedication of the community singers gave them pause.

“The first rehearsal, everyone showed up,” Ford says. “We just didn’t know. You’re working with people who have jobs and busy lives. There was such a great energy in the room.”

“Our hope and desire was that everyone would take this as seriously as we do,” Mercier says. “And that’s really been the case. The choir has been really involved, and they’re so invested.”

Mercier led rehearsals with all 30 singers to teach them the music. It’s only been the past week that they’ve been working in their specific choirs and singing with the ISF cast and chorus.

It was a learning process for both — Mercier teaching them how to sing in the context of a musical, and sometimes the singers with classical and opera training teaching him Latin pronunciations.

“Joel is an amazing music director,” McCoy says. “He’s so clear. He shows you how to do it better in a very positive way, and you want to do your best for him. I wish he was here all year long. He’s made this an extraordinary experience.”

Making it work

Most of the choir singers have a classical background. Several sing with the Boise Philharmonic Master Chorale, a few with Opera Idaho, some with their church or high school choirs or for musical theater. And most have full-time jobs, like Brian Shepson, who is the chief pilot for Mission Aviation Fellowship, a Christian organization that delivers aid supplies and personnel to remote locations across the globe.

Shepson is in choirs A and B, along with his daughter Stephanie. They car pool to rehearsals together from Meridian.

“It was scary for me to commit to it because I’m usually traveling, but I was able to make it happen,” Shepson says. “We’ve long enjoyed going to see productions at ISF, but I never thought we’d have the privilege of participating in one. The real perk is to get to see the whole production from the other side — all the dance moves, the sound and lighting it takes to pull it all together. It’s just phenomenal.”

The music is challenging, not just because of the complexity of the score but in how the choir meets and mingles with the ISF chorus. Knowing when to enter and sing at the right times is just as important as hitting the notes.

You really have to know your stuff, says Leta Harris Neustaedter, one of the few choir members who makes a living performing in the Treasure Valley. She sings with local bands and vocal groups and runs Metamorphosis Performing Arts Studio, which does educational programs in the community.

“I’m pretty good at what I do,” Neustaedter says. “I’m used to being at the top. Now, I’m excited to be around people who are better than me. I watch and learn, and my goal is to be able to take it up a notch by being around people who are awesome. It makes me up my game, and it’s completely thrilling.”

It’s also challenging getting through a show without getting choked up, she says.

“It’s so emotional,” Neustaedter says. “Not just the powerful music but also the harsh reality of the themes of hatred and persecution of minorities and the disabled. I’m so glad to be part of the production.”

Even when they’re not performing, choir members come to rehearsals to watch and support their fellow performers — in the choir and the cast.

“Everyone is so warm and friendly and supportive,” McCoy says. “I feel like I’m part of the team. I’ve never had that experience before. We’re just a local choir, but they made us feel — not just welcome — but a part of the family.”

Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’

7 p.m. Sunday, July 3 (Family Night, sold out with a waiting list); 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 4, Wednesday, July 5, Saturday, July 8; and 7 p.m. Sunday, July 9; and dates through Friday, Sept. 1, ISF Amphitheater, 5657 Warm Springs Ave., Boise. Note: Tickets for some shows have limited availability in some ticket prices. The Greenshow mini-concert is at 7:20 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays. $29-$50 adults, $13 children 6-17 on Family Night only. Students with valid ID are $20 any show. 336-9221,