Sunday, August 16, 2015

Hamilton Takes His Shot, and It's a Bullseye

Review: Hamilton
Phillipa Soo and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Eliza and Alexander Hamilton.
There are many reasons why Hamilton is an historic, groundbreaking, and important show, the kind of genre-defining work of genius destined to be mentioned along with the likes of A Chorus Line and Rent as a musical that changed the definition of what was possible on the Broadway stage. But all of those reasons stem from the show's chief strength, which is the fact that it is quite simply an incredible achievement in musical storytelling. Lin-Manuel Miranda's hip-hop magnum opus manages to convey both the epic sweep of our country's history and the personal drama occurring in the lives of those who shaped it, distilling the ideals of the American Revolution down to their essence and presenting them in a package that is wildly unexpected and yet completely intuitive. Hamilton functions on so many levels simultaneously that it's somewhat mind-blowing, and yet the show is also one of the most accessible productions currently playing Broadway.

On its most basic level, Hamilton is the life story of Alexander Hamilton, the "Ten Dollar Founding Father" who came to America as an immigrant, helped usher it through the turmoil of the Revolution, and ultimately created the basis of the financial system that has allowed it to become one of the most prosperous nations in the world. But what makes the show so exciting, so viscerally engaging and interesting, is that it is about so much more than one man's life. It is about the very ideals our country was founded on, the same political and philosophical quandaries that trouble today's world leaders as much as they did the rowdy bunch of colonists who rebelled against England's rule in 1776. Hamilton doesn't just speak to how our country was then, but how it is now, a parallel made all the more apparent thanks to the wholly contemporary prism through which this story is presented.

Miranda's score is a work of unadulterated genius, fusing many disparate influences into a crystalized, coherent whole that is immediately engaging, emotionally appealing, and constantly surprising. Expertly crafted rap battles form the basis of political debate, a close knit group of sisters adopt the vocal stylings of a Destiny's Child-esque girl group, and jealous political rivals express their vaulting ambition in the form of hard hitting club thumpers. This throughcomposed work is filled with sly lyrical references to everything from contemporary politics to Rodgers and Hammerstein, all packaged into intricately rhymed passages so dense with meaning that repeated listening only reveals more and more layers of nuance. Yes, the show can be classified as a rap musical, but there are also soaring R&B ballads, tightly harmonized choral numbers, and enough subconscious-permeating melodic hooks that even the staunchest detractors of contemporary music will probably leave humming a bar or two.

Not only is Miranda's score exceptional - quite possibly the best theatrical writing of the new millennium - but his airtight plotting packs an astounding amount of detail into the show's never boring two hour and forty-five minute runtime. Miranda never sacrifices historical accuracy for narrative clarity, and the intercutting between Hamilton's personal life and the larger historical canvas is so deftly handled you'll never once question what's going on. The show was already remarkable during its Off-Broadway run earlier this year, but Miranda has used the time between the show's world premiere and Broadway bow to tighten the storytelling even further. Every minute of the production is not only necessary but also supremely interesting, with nary a wasted subplot or musical motif to be found.

While Miranda's writing pulses with a vivacious life all its own, the production's staging kicks things into overdrive. Director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler work together so seamlessly their contributions look like the work of a single (supremely gifted) individual; Hamilton hits the ground running and only picking up steam from there. Dancers appear and disappear throughout David Korins' deconstructed wood and mortar set, and both Kail and Blankenbuehler make excellent use of the double turntable Korins has provided them. The actors rarely stop moving, and yet this never veers into manic or distracting territory thanks to the sheer inventiveness and unerringly dramatic composition of the evening's stage pictures. Coupled with Paul Tazewell's top notch riffs on eighteenth century clothing and Howell Binkley's *incredible* lighting design, the show is a sumptuous visual feast of intricate staging to rival anything Broadway has ever seen. (Tip: while the orchestra view is no doubt incredible, the full genius of Kail and Blankenbuehler's intricate formations and Tazewell's outstanding lights can only be fully appreciated from the mezzanine.)

And then there's the cast. This is the kind of supremely talented ensemble whose work is destined to become the stuff of theatrical legend, lead by Miranda's fearless performance in the title role. The composer-lyricist-actor acquitted himself very nicely Off-Broadway, but here he has taken things to the next level with his multi-faceted portrayal of the "young, scrappy, and hungry" Founding Father. Miranda perfectly captures the combination of charisma and outspokenness that made Hamilton such an influential figure in early US politics, and also demonstrates just enough personal arrogance that you understand why the author of the Federalist Papers provoked so much scorn among his political rivals.

Counterbalancing Miranda's fire is Leslie Odom, Jr.'s slow burn portrayal of Aaron Burr, the lawyer and politician who famously shot Hamilton in a duel. Odom, Jr. slinks in and out of the narrative during the show's first half, calmly collected while Hamilton's revolutionary fire makes the latter a natural center of attention. But behind Odom, Jr.'s smile is a growing hunger that glistens in his eyes as Burr watches Hamilton go on to greater and greater things, an ambition that boils over during the actor's full-throttle, showstopping performance of "The Room Where It Happens." Other actors portraying famous historical figures include Christopher Jackson as an imposingly dignified George Washington, Jonathan Groff hamming it up as the embittered and foppish King George III, and Daveed Diggs in a star-making dual turn as the showboating Marquis de Lafayette and legendary author of the constitution Thomas Jefferson.

While history is undoubtedly a boys' club, Hamilton still finds plenty of time to explore the women who exerted a huge amount of influence over the title character, specifically his wife Eliza and her sister Angelica Schuyler. Eliza is perfectly embodied by Phillipa Soo, who plays her with a convincing combination of girlish excitement and quiet strength. Soo's big moments come in the musical's latter half, when Hamilton and his family fall subject to the nation's first sex scandal and a heartwrenching personal tragedy; this is where the actress' carefully laid character work from her earlier scenes really helps to sell Eliza's anguish and inner resolve. And Renee Elise Goldsberry is a revelation as Angelica, with her performance of "Satisfied" ranking among the most blissful minutes of musical theatre perfection in the past ten years.

Much has been written about Hamilton in the past six months, to the point where it seems impossible the show could live up to the hype surrounding it. And yet even with the weight of overwhelming expectations upon it, Hamilton soars thanks to a fantastically talented collection of artists all working at the absolute pinnacle of their respective fields to tell a universally appealing story about men and women striving towards their ideals. The characters may falter, but Hamilton never does, making it the must-see theatrical production of the decade. At one point in the show, the Schuyler sisters sing, "Look around, look around/At how lucky we are to be alive right now." We are all lucky to live in a world where a work as daringly ambitious and wildly successful as Hamilton exists.

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