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Gina Naomi Baez has fighting spirit in 'Hunchback' and in real life

The Rockville Centre actress and cancer survivor brings her own bravery to the role of Esmeralda in the Argyle Theatre musical.

Rockville Centre native Gina Naomi Baez plays Esmeralda,

Rockville Centre native Gina Naomi Baez plays Esmeralda, and Colin Anderson, is Quasimodo, in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" at the Argyle Theatre through Dec. 30. Photo Credit: The Argyle Theatre

WHAT “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, through Dec. 30, The Argyle Theatre, 34 W. Main St., Babylon

INFO $49 to $74, 844-631-5483, www.argyletheatre.com

Gina Naomi Baez is an influencer. Crooning covers, mashups and original songs with her attentive, 4-pound papitese,  Tinkerbelle, in tow, the Rockville Centre native has attracted more than 50,000 followers on her YouTube channels. Appearances on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” and in the recurring role of Marisol in Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It Too”  (to be released by the streaming service next year) are also broadening her reach.

But her newest professional role, as the seductive and good-hearted gypsy, Esmeralda, in the Argyle Theatre’s  production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, has brought her back to local fans.

“She’s kind, accepting and brave,” says Baez fondly of the character she portrays at the Babylon Village playhouse. The qualities that describe Esmeralda are ones the actress understands well, ones she also possesses and that helped her through her battle with cancer. “Esmeralda is always a fighter. No matter what, she stays positive,” says Baez.

Diagnosed with  Hodgkin lymphoma  in middle school, Baez found refuge and assurance in theater, undertaking a leading role in a drama club production while going throughchemotherapy. “The magic of being onstage was a way for me to cope,” she contends. “If it could help me get through cancer, I realized the arts had the power to help all people. I knew it was what I wanted to pursue.”

It was shortly after that, Baez founde Kids Performing Who Kare. The nonprofit theater company has staged shows featuring both youth and professional performers, raising some $500,000 for the Cancer Center for Kids at NYU Winthrop Hospital,  where she was treated.

Baez's  appearance in the Argyle Theater production of “Hunchback” is enhanced by local talent -- an onstage choir of students who rotate in from the Long Island Musical Theatre  Festival program and the adult musicians comprising the orchestra. The musical’s songwriters, Alan Menken and Roslyn Heights-raised Stephen Schwartz, who also created the score for the 1996 Disney animated film, inserted the live ensemble, or “congregation,” in an effort to replicate the motion picture’s full-bodied sound.

Baez's favorite song, “God Help the Outcasts,” she notes, is an audience favorite, too. “People wait for that moment. Esmeralda is so selfless -- she cares more about others than herself.” Like the character she plays, Baez knows the value of connecting to a community.

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