Wednesday, March 4, 2015

"Hamilton" Brings a Revolution to the Public

Review: Hamilton

"Look around, look around/At how lucky we are to be alive" in a world that gives birth to shows like the transcendent Hamilton.

Believe the hype. Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's hip-hop historical opus that has the entire town buzzing, is every bit as good as you've heard. This kinetic, high-energy production fuses old and new with an energy and drive seldom seen in this world of mass appeal musicals, ironically resulting in a show with wider appeal to both traditional and non-traditional theatregoers than 95% of the past decade's hits. A work of singular vision and uncompromising artistic integrity, Hamilton builds upon the promise of Miranda's In the Heights to become a dazzling celebration of American history and the unlimited malleability of the musical theatre, one of the few distinctly American art forms.

At its core, Hamilton is the story of how an orphaned immigrant used his intelligence and drive to not just make a difference but quite literally change the world. Alexander Hamilton was instrumental in founding this county, laying the groundwork for our entire economic system before his untimely death at the hands of former colleague Aaron Burr. The musical breathlessly covers the life and numerous accomplishments of one of America's least discussed Founding Fathers, while simultaneously showcasing the pulse-pounding energy and excitement of the birth of our nation. Despite dense plotting and potentially dry subject matter, Hamilton is never anything less than engrossing, making centuries old events feel both cool and relevant.

Hamilton eclipses Miranda's Tony-winning In the Heights score in every way possible, expanding on the traits which garnered Miranda notice and rewriting the book on the types of music that can work in the theatre. Completely sung-through, Hamilton contains an abundance of rap passages backed by hip-hop beats, dizzyingly deft in their specificity, inventiveness, and poetic nuance. R&B also features heavily in the score, whether its the tight harmonies of "The Schuyler Sisters" (which reimagines Hamilton's future wife and her sisters as a Destiny's Child-esque girl group) or the smooth yet ominous club rhythms of "The Room Where It Happens." Richly textured harmonies and complex syncopation are the score's hallmarks, but for all the musical skill on display the songs remain accessible, hummable, and thoroughly engaging. The rapid fire rhymes sound as natural as speaking, with everything filtered through just enough of a traditional showtune sensibility to keep things from sounding jarring.

As refreshingly unique as Miranda's score is the show's beautifully multi-ethnic cast, a group of supremely talented individuals who inhabit Hamilton's world seamlessly. No one even partially resembles their real life counterparts, but they convey the essence of these historical figures flawlessly. They reflect the ethnic makeup of modern day America, and in doing so drive home the point that our Founding Fathers' dreams are universal. By the end of the show's knockout opening number the unconventional casting fades to the background, allowing the story to take center stage and boldly commenting on race by refusing to comment on it (the casts' ethnicities aren't even jokingly acknowledged). One can only hope the unmitigated success of Hamilton as a piece of theatre triggers an increased open-mindedness among all creative teams when it comes to color-blind casting.

Miranda tackles the title role with aplomb, his natural charisma keeping Hamilton deeply sympathetic even when his actions veer towards the unsavory (the show strikes the perfect balance between acknowledging its subject's flaws without reveling in them). Miranda has smartly tailored the role to his strengths while stretching himself just enough to keep things interesting; he is particularly affecting during a second act scene which finds Hamilton's oldest son wounded in a duel. As Hamilton's wife Eliza, Phillipa Soo has little to do in the show's first act but several standout moments in the second, including "It's Quiet Uptown" and the haunting ballad "Burn." Brian D'Arcy James* has a scene stealing turn as England's King George, who views the newly formed America with all the jealous disdain of a jilted lover. Christopher Jackson is suitably imposing as George Washington, and Daveed Diggs and Okieriete Onaodowan are hilarious in multiple roles.

As Hamilton's friend/rival Aaron Burr, the phenomenal Leslie Odom Jr. commands the stage in a star-making performance of startling depth, breadth, and nuance. Calling to mind Shakespeare's Iago - although an Iago with a bit more substance behind his grievances - Odom makes it abundantly clear he deeply admires Hamilton, even as Burr's career ambitions put the pair increasingly at odds with one another. Odom's full throttled performance of the aforementioned "Room Where It Happens" is an especially memorable showstopper in an evening full of such numbers, and watching his soul-shattering realization of the cost of his ambition during the show's finale is heartwrenching.

Finally, Renee Elise Goldsberry is an absolute revelation as Eliza Hamilton's older sister Angelica, making a character that could easily fade into the background pop every moment she's onstage. Goldsberry is never less than riveting even before her big number, the dazzling, tour de force "Satisfied." Goldsberry provides a play's worth of character development over the course of this R&B stunner, a breathtaking achievement in songwriting and performance that may well be the highlight of the entire evening.

As the ringmasters of this historical circus, director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler have created one of the most fluid and visually appealing stagings in years. While the pair makes excellent use of David Korins' absolutely gorgeous unit set (complete with a triple turntable), they are never reliant on the set to provide visual interest, constantly finding new and intriguing stage pictures and scene transitions. The pair work so well together its nearly impossible to tell where one's contribution ends and the other's begins, with Blankenbuehler's high-impact choreography growing seamlessly from Kail's propulsive staging and then just as organically fading into the background. Most importantly, Kail and Blankenbuehler have imbued the piece with a forward momentum the keeps things moving throughout the show's 2 hour and 45 minute runtime.

Like any new musical, Hamilton could stand a few tweaks before its impending Broadway transfer, but it cannot be overstated how entertaining, informative, and moving this work already is. Lin-Manuel Miranda has written a work of genius that seems destined to join the pantheon of groundbreaking works like A Chorus Line or Rent, one of the rare new musicals that arrives with a lot of fanfare and still manages to exceeds expectations. The show combines contemporary musical styles with historical subject matter in a manner brimming with wit, invention, and razor sharp intelligence, performed by a thrillingly multi-ethnic cast giving the performances of their lives. This is a show that doesn't just need to be seen but demands to be seen, and anyone lucky enough to snag a ticket to the downtown run is in for the theatrical event of the season. For everyone else, I recommend snatching up a seat to the Broadway run when they go onsale March 8th; whatever you have to pay, it will be worth it to see theatrical history being made.

*Note: Since I saw this show, the role of King George has been taken over by Tony-nominee Jonathan Groff so that Brian D'Arcy James can prepare for the Broadway musical Something Rotten.

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