This was going to be a review. Really it was. Had the intro written out and everything:
“How do you write like you’re running out of time?”
A six-year voyage finally comes to port–beginning at the White House poetry event and evolving bit by bit from the mind of Lin-Manuel Miranda and the active public chronicling in the realm of Twitterico (aka Lin’s Twitter world), the life and times of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton is now a living, breathing, 2 1/2 hour event being presented at the Public Theater. With previews having begun in January and performances running through May 3 (after THREE date extensions) the show that began as a 4-minute mini-biography sparked by the Ron Chernow tome comes to the performance stage with song, dance and spoken word.
That’s as far as I got. Because still, months later, I’m still tongue-tied and gobsmacked. It’s already hard enough to explain to my non-theater obsessed friends what level of magical genius Lin-Manuel Miranda is on…try explaining why a musical about a long-dead U.S. Treasury Secretary only famous to most for being on the $10 bill is not only riveting theater but a life-changing experience.
I’ve been waiting for three years to write this, ever since my initial live exposure at the Allen Room delivered a gorgeous preview with nothing but the music and black attire. I thought I was ready–I got my tickets early, plotted my trip for months and re-read my own blogs to know what to expect. I felt confident that having already dipped my toe in the wading pond I could sit semi-smugly in the audience with my unsuspecting companions as they witnessed the same brilliance I’d already seen.
And then the lights went down. And my elbows went to my knees and my hands went under my chin. And I stayed there until the lights came up for intermission. I couldn’t process it all–the best I could do was look at my equally shocked, previously skeptical friends and say, “you’re welcome.” I mean, what else CAN you say? That is, if you even have the ability to form intelligible words.
This show is a masterpiece that runs at breakneck speed, forcing you to either keep up with the rapid-fire pace or get joyfully dragged along. It’s history told in modern-day cadence with a melting pot of faces and insane levels of talent. Even the choreography counts as a cast member unto itself–an insane mix of hip-hop, modern, krump, swing and contemporary (for which choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler deserves immediate and constant genuflection on sight). More than just the historical details, though, HAMILTON humanizes the larger-than-life behemoths that are the nation’s Founding Fathers, showing all the highs and lows, triumphs and defeats, scandals, joy and heartbreaks that spotlight their extraordinary ordinariness. Yes, they were brilliant thinkers, brave fighters, audacious revolutionaries…but they were men and women seeking love, validation and a strong foothold in this world.
As with In The Heights, we are again aurally blessed with the musical marriage that is Lin-Manuel Miranda and Alex Lacaimore. Since that beginning four-minute experiment at the White House (and if you HAVEN’T yet seen the performance that birthed this entire revolution, please watch before you proceed any further), I can’t produce any greater superlatives for the marvelous blend and complexity of musical styles and rhythms than I did in my Allen Room concert review. These two are unstoppable: the melodic and verbal gymnastics born of this love affair between hip-hop and musical theater is so palpable it creates a scenery of its own–what you hear is what’s seen in the mind’s eye. That’s not to dismiss the more obvious visual talents of scenic designer David Korins and costume designer Paul Tazewell, however; the pair accent this lush material with contrasting backdrops. Tazewell’s opulent and elaborate finery meticulously depicts each passing era and character station. Juxtaposed against Korins’s stark, simplistic backdrop, the visual combination allows the characters and scenes to travel through as if in a live action flipbook of history…a life-sized game board of Risk, if you will, that lays out each intricate move of our nation’s inception on the proscenium’s arena.
I would be completely remiss if I didn’t at least mention the stellar efforts put forth by this exceptional cast. I’m breaking form a little by beginning with the ensemble–true, my devotion to So You Think You Can Dance and my admiration for Hwang’s Kung Fu and Miranda’s debut work In The Heights already had me in the door for Ariana DeBose, Thayne Jasperson, Jon Rua and Seth Stewart respectively, but every single dancer was vital to the movement of the story, and performed seamlessly. Special shout out to Andy Blankenbuehler for his vision, and to Ariana, Thayne, Seth, Jon and their colleagues Carleigh Bettiol, Andrew Chapelle, Alysha Deslorieux, Sydney James Harcourt, Sasha Hutchings, Betsy Struxness, Ephraim Sykes, Voltaire Wade-Green, Stephanie Klemons and Javier Muñoz for their flawless execution. (I would love to see Javier Muñoz in as Hamilton at least once.)
The principal cast is full of stars–even if you may not have heard of any of them yet. Christopher Jackson’s turn as Washington was stately and strong–exactly as I’d expected from the prior concert and more. Though I’d planned to see him in Holla If Ya Hear Me, I can’t be too disappointed he got to reprise his Allen Room role in grander fashion. Renee Elise Goldsberry, who I’ve had a fangirl crush on since One Life To Live and who I’d forgotten could sing so well, blew the roof off the Public as Angelica Schuyler. Between her fantastic vocal range and her ability to ride those fast rap-sung sections like Hawaiian waves while adding strength and sass to them, phenomenal is too paltry a word to describe her performance but I’ll settle on it until we can invent a better one. Anthony Ramos was so flippin’ cute in Lin’s This American Life offering of “21 Chump Street,” and I expected him to be able to hold his own here. He didn’t disappoint, either in his brief appearance as John Laurents or his heart-rending turn as Phillip Hamilton. The earnest eagerness he displayed in Phillip’s efforts to walk in his father’s footsteps and hopefully gain some of his affection causes our hearts to ache for the young, ill-fated Hamilton sire. Okeriete Onaodowon is the ultimate chameleon in his dual turn as Hercules Mulligan and James Madison. It’s almost Jekyll and Hyde-like how he goes from the brash, in-your-face badassery of Mulligan into the quiet, hanger-on, almost milquetoast persona of Madison. Jasmine Cephas Jones makes the most of her Michelle Williams-like turn as Peggy Schuyler, while delicately balancing vamp and victim in her Maria Reynolds.
And then there’s the pimptastic Daveed Diggs…I mean, how else would you describe the man who played the two smoothest players in the story? His refined Marquis de Lafayette and his impudent Thomas Jefferson play interchangeably against each other, and as the male player with the largest volume of supersonic lyrics to deliver, he spits them as effortlessly as breathing clean, country air. Brian D’Arcy-James was absolutely hilarious in his turn as King George II. Though he only had two prominent vocal offerings, his stoic, snooty demeanor had the house in stitches. How he or anyone else on that stage never broke character and dissolved into fits of giggles is truly astonishing.
The story’s three heaviest hitters–Aaron Burr, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton and Alexander Hamilton–were movingly and expertly played. Leslie Odom, Jr. surprised me in the subtle ease and amiability with which he portrays Burr. Considering the dark, villainous hue history has shaded Burr’s legacy, Odom’s portrayal as easygoing, friendly and reserved goes against any expected or stereotypical offering of an antagonist. He really allows the audience to see Burr’s humanity and heart along with the ambition. Phillipa Soo’s performance as Eliza may well be the reason why the show’s title is HAMILTON and not ALEXANDER HAMILTON–she is just as vital a character and watching her development as a person is simply riveting, with dulcet, soul-stirring vocals to go with it. If there is a person who has seen (or will see) this show that has heard her sing “Burn” and left the theater with dry eyes or lumpless throats, I demand to see receipts as proof that your hearts exist. And of course, Lin-Manuel Miranda. As the obvious fan I am, I could leave that sentence there as a testament to my feelings on his performance, but there’s so much more to say. Anyone who actively follows Lin in the press and on social media is well aware how large a labor of love writing this show has been for him, and can also see how much of himself he has poured into every word and note that comes from the stage. It’s difficult for me to separate actor from character because I can see the moments Lin pulls his own passions and feelings into portraying this lesser-known, highly intelligent and wildly complicated Founding Father. He portrays every bit of brashness, impetuousness, intellect, anguish, bravado and resilience that his namesake had to have possessed to live the tale we see displayed on the stage.
I can’t wait to take this ride again once this ship docks on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theater. Alexander and Eliza are incredibly fortunate it was Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote himself into the narrative to tell their story…as are we all.
(Oh, and an extra special thanks to Tommy Kail, for spurring Lin on so that it was only a SIX year wait….. 😀 )
Lin-Manuel Miranda – Alexander Hamilton
Leslie Odom, Jr. – Aaron Burr
Christopher Jackson – George Washington
Brian d’Arcy James (later Jonathan Groff*) – King George II
Phillipa Soo – Eliza Schuyler Hamilton
Renee Elise Goldsberry – Angelica Schuyler
Jasmine Cephas Jones – Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds
Anthony Ramos – John Laurens/Phillip Hamilton
Okeriete Onaodowon – Hercules Mulligan/James Madison
Daveed Diggs – Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson
Javier Munoz – Alexander Hamilton (Standby)
Carleigh Bettiol, Andrew Chappelle, Ariana Debose, Alysha Deslorieux, Sydney James Harcourt, Neil Haskell*, Sasha Hutchings, Thayne Jasperson, Stephanie Klemons, Morgan Marcell, Emmy Raver-Lampman*, Jon Rua, Austin Smith*, Seth Stewart, Betsy Struxness, Ephraim Sykes and Voltaire Wade-Greene
*Jonathan Groff will originate the role of King George II in the Broadway run. Neil Haskell, Emmy Raver-Lampman and Austin Smith are new additions to the Company for the Broadway run.
HAMILTON opens at the Richard Rodgers Theater for previews TODAY, July 13.