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The Fulton Theatre's epic production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a treat for the eyes and the ears. It is an engaging and emotional piece of theater that exceeds expectations in several key ways.

For example, I had never seen the 1996 Disney animated movie that serves as the springboard for this musical. I had assumed that it followed the mold of many others that I seen from the same era, where an oddball character goes on a comedic journey, finds love and acceptance, and ends happily ever after. Hunchback is different, and represents a story that is significantly more mature.

The content is relatively dark (but not bleak). The songs and choreography effectively reinforce the tone of the show. The characters are nuanced and three-dimensional. Despite it being associated with Disney, there is no "Prince Charming" or "Wicked Step-Mother". The story does not adhere to moral absolutism, and it is a more complex and satisfying show because of it.

A second way that the show exceeds expectations is in its casting. When I first learned that one of the favorites of the Fulton stage, Nathaniel Hackmann was cast as Quasimodo the Hunchback, I assumed that this was a huge misstep. Hackmann is big, burly and handsome with piercing blue eyes. He has found his niche playing comedic bullies with swagger in roles such as Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, and Orin Scrivello from Little Shop of Horrors. A meek hero with significant deformities did not seem as if it would be in his wheelhouse.

However, congratulations are in order to director, Marc Robin and casting director, Bob Cline for banking on this unconventional choice. Hackmann is tremendous with both the physical and emotional tolls of the role. The audience has the pleasure of watching this transformation at the top of the show, when Hackmann walks to the front of the stage, dons the prosthetic hump, twists his posture, tousles his hair, and becomes Quasimodo. An equally impressive distinction occurs when he speaks to the cathedral's statues in private versus when he speaks to another human being in public. In the first instance, his voice is totally clear without affliction, while in the other, his speech is slurred and choppy, a constant reminder of his multiple disabilities.

Beyond Hackmann, casting for the other primary roles was equally strong. Kayln West stars as Esmerelda, the gypsy woman, friend of Quasimodo and object of desire for others. West portrays her character with fierce strength and independence. Esmerelda is a woman who is equally beautiful on the inside and out.

Travis Taylor plays Pheobus De Martin with aplomb in demeanor and voice. De Martin starts off as a solider come back from war assigned to be a guard for the Notre Dame Cathedral. He becomes disillusioned with the religious hypocrisy, and soon turns his allegiance to Esmerelda and her gypsy friends who are unjustly persecuted.

David Girolmo is Dom Claude Frollo , the archdeacon of the cathedral, caretaker of Quasimodo, and, eventual villain of the story. We see a gradual de-evolution of this character over the course of the show. He starts out as a loving and pious brother and protector. Yet, lustful temptations and extreme measures of intolerance seep in to darken his soul. Girolmo makes him well-rounded, and we cannot help but still view him with a bit of sympathy because we have previously seen his hints of goodness.

The third and final way that this production exceeds expectations is in its scale. It has been promoted (including by me) as a show of immense spectacle and grandeur. It sports a well-seasoned orchestra and a chorus of over 70 singers. I was worried going in that the show might be all sizzle and no steak.

In reality, these elements nicely embellish and enhance the show, yet they do not define it. Hunchback is not akin to shows dependent on gimmicks like helicopters landing or crashing chandeliers. It is a straightforward drama that relies on only a few essential characters to tell a story highlighting the human element. While the production value is extremely high, it is not the star of the show. Rather, it is plays a support role, as it should be.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame plays at the Fulton now through July 21. It is the perfect way to end the company's current season, and I predict many Broadway World Award nominations in its future. Tickets and more information can be found here.

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From This Author Rich Mehrenberg