Photo by Nick Fiala

Blake Rushing speaks to his young cast on the set of Fendig Theater’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

RENSSELAER — The Fendig Summer Children’s Theater’s production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is set to premiere this week.

Performances will be 7 p.m. July 11-13 in the Rensselaer Central High School auditorium.

On Monday, as they prepared for dress rehearsals, Stage Director Blake Rushing and Technical Director Harrison Heinig said the show promises to be just as big — or bigger — than last year’s production of “Newsies.”

“We start looking at a bunch of different shows and how the ensemble fits in because we have so many people, and trying to figure out how we can make sure everybody gets to play a really big part in telling this story,” Heinig said.

Heinig said the production has 58 child actors and at least five young technicians running around during the show, as well as five additional staff members and roughly 30 volunteers.

A production with that many people playing “really big parts” needs a really big set. One would be hard-pressed to say Fendig hasn’t delivered on that front.

This year’s massive two-story structure is meant to suggest the scope of one of the world’s most famous cathedrals.

And that set didn’t come together overnight.

“We’ve been building since May 28, so quite a while,” Heinig said, “and we’re here five or six hours every day. It’s been fun.”

A production of this size requires many willing hearts, he said.

“Theater is meant to be a collaborative art,” Heinig said. “Unless you have more people here, there’s no way we’d have a chance to do any of this. Anybody that’s willing to help are more than welcome. We would love to have them here.”

In case the set’s scale doesn’t impress some members of the audience, they may yet be wowed by the musical performances. The stage version of this story is somewhat unique given that it’s a hybrid of the original book and the 1996 Disney musical.

“It takes the Disney music and it adds it into the book,” Heinig said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Though he called the music “phenomenal,” Heinig said it also presents a fun challenge for the large cast of youngsters involved.

“The show’s designed to have a 32-piece choir in the background the whole time,” he said. “We’ve decided to not do that, but the kids get to sing all the choral music the whole time. So, along with acting and doing all of our crazy stuff, they are singing a full choral book, which is pretty cool.”

Rushing agreed, calling it “one of the hardest scores that Fendig has ever worked on.”

Shows like “Newsies” and “Notre Dame” have given Fendig the chance to show that it’s capable of delivering a spectacle on a much larger scale than some might assume.

“There are definitely a lot of high schools, colleges and regional theaters that would not want to touch this show,” Heinig said. “We’re just excited that we get to bring something this challenging for the kids to work on. It’s fun to get to push the kids in more ways to grow, but also give us a chance to show the community what Fendig can do with it. It’s not just one show we can do that for. It’s everything.”

For Rushing, it’s been something of a personal challenge.

“’Newsies’ was one of the hardest things that I could ever possibly do,” he said of last year’s production. “So the main thing was, ‘What could I do that’s harder?’ Because if I just do something that’s the same or easier, then I’m not going to have any fun. I’m not going to learn anything. The kids aren’t going to learn anything. So I wanted to raise the bar a little bit. And this show really does do that, in a lot of ways.”

Fortunately, Rushing gets to work with what he called “the best-behaved group of kids that I’ve ever had.” Unfortunately, he has to know where to put them first.

“The hardest part is getting the show staged,” he said. “Once the show’s staged, it gets very easy. The initial teaching of it, I would say, is the hardest part but the most fun part, because then, once it’s all taught, my job gets pretty boring and I just have to trust that they’ll do what I instructed them to do, which they’re really good at doing.”

Fortunately, he was able to collaborate with Heinig about what the set would look like. Much of the structure’s skeleton was already in place when rehearsals began.

“I had a mental idea of what I wanted it to look like,” he said. “And so that was very easy to portray, very easy to explain to the kids, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’ And we had a majority of the set already built for rehearsals. The main stuff, what they step on, was already built. The details were added along the way.”

He called the production his “dream show,” because of the positive message that it can send to the community through its young actors.

“The meaning of the show is something that I think kids need to be taught and some things that adults need to be reminded of,” he said. “Some stories are better told from children. The story really is the power of acceptance, accepting what makes us different, whether it be skin, disability, sex, any of it, anything that makes you different. It’s a real powerhouse lesson on acceptance.”

Given the devastating fires which destroyed a portion of the real-life structure in Paris, France, earlier this year, one can be forgiven for thinking Fendig chose the show specifically in response. But the directors said this wasn’t the case.

“That was a complete coincidence,” Rushing said. “The show was already decided, and then it happened. People will bring it up, I’m sure.”

Heinig agreed, noting Fendig had to delay its announcement because of the events of that day.

“A bunch of people have been asking us if we picked it because the church burned,” he said. “But we actually were ready to announce this show the day the church caught on fire. And then were were like, ‘Maybe we should wait.’”

Heinig said the cast and crew don’t plan on making any specific references to recent events when they introduce or close out the show. But it may be impossible for audiences to ignore parallels since the original story was inspired by another fire that struck the church in the late 1400s.

More information on the production can be found at fendigtheatre.org.