Review: Hamilton

by Lynn on February 16, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Based on the book “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow

Directed by Thomas Kail

Choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler

Scenic design by David Korins

Costumes by Paul Tazewell

Lighting by Howell Binkley

Sound by Nevin Steinberg

Orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire

Cast: Ta’Rea Campbell

Darilyn Castillo

Marcus Choi

Jared Dixon

Desmond Sean Ellington

Warren Egypt Franklin

Neil Haskell

Elijah Malcomb

Joseph Morales

Stephanie Jae Park

Plus a large chorus.

Hamilton is relentlessly inventive and pulsing with the energy of a first rate cast.

Note: This touring production arrives for an extended stay on a torrent of publicity, notoriety, celebrity, awards, huge hype and generally ecstatic reviews.  It’s the show that has people in a frenzy to pay exorbitant amounts of money for a ticket just to say they’ve seen it.

Mirvish Productions is presenting Hamilton here and are aware of the scamming going on for tickets and have warned that only a ticket bought at a Mirvish box office will be recognized.

The Story. Hamilton has a book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. It’s based on the book “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow and is about Alexander Hamilton, an outsider and a founding father of the United States, who lived from 1755 or 1757 to 1804. It charts Hamilton’s meteoric rise in politics, being George Washington’s right hand man during the American Revolution and in his cabinet as Secretary of the Treasury when Washington became the first President of the United States. He created the country’s financial system. He married well and got caught in a tricky situation with another woman for which he paid blackmail and was exposed. He handled that exposure to his advantage. He was politically astute, wily and savvy. But you have to go elsewhere to find out the less than sanitized information about him: that he was a slave trader, abolition was not tops on his list of important things, he was elitist and not the champion of the little guy to name a few. Hamilton has lots of facts about him, but you don’t go to a Broadway musical for historical facts.

The Production. David Korins’ set is a series of wood walk-ways and moveable staircases used to impressive effect. Paul Tazwell’s period costumes are formal for the elite characters: Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington etc. and form-fitting breaches for the hard-working chorus. King George is dressed ‘regally’ in bright red silk complete with gold crown.

It’s interesting that Aaron Burr (a wonderful, nuanced performance by Jared Dixon) opens the show with his introduction to who Alexander Hamilton is:

“How does a bastard, orphan, son

            of a whore and a

            Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten

            Spot in the Caribbean by providence, impover-

            ished, in squalor,

            Grow up to be a hero and a scholar.”

It’s notable that after Jared Dixon’s clever, measured build-up as Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton’s appearance, as played by Joseph Morales, seems almost understated. We are told Hamilton is driven but this performance always seems eclipsed in variation and nuance by Jared Dixon. Burr is politically astute and can read the room. He says to Hamilton, who spouts words, “to talk less and listen more.” This stops Hamilton momentarily to ponder, just slightly, but then without comment, Hamilton just continues doing what he always does, ignoring the sound advice. Burr is the best part in Hamilton and certainly as played by Dixon that is just a touch slower than the others who deliberately gush and rush.   

What makes this musical so different? It is relentlessly inventive. The subject matter is mind-boggling in its unusualness: a show about a guy from the 1700s who generally no one knew much about before Chernow’s book and certainly not before the musical; who is celebrated by being on the American $10. (When it was recently put forward that Harriet Tubman should replace Alexander Hamilton on the American $10, Lin-Manuel Miranda used his huge celebrity to successfully lobby to have Hamilton remain on the $10 bill and Tubman be considered for something else. Exhale slowly.)

While the show uses various musical forms—hip-hop, pop etc. it’s rap that predominates.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical, In the Heights, used rap for the most part as well.

Hamilton is Miranda’s second musical.  He followed that with Freestyle Love Supreme which at times improvises rap lyrics. So rap is Miranda’s forte but he can and does work in other musical forms—lots of movie music, etc. His lyrics are dense and very clever.

Hamilton is pulsing with energy in that the cast is always moving. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler fills the show with various kinds of choreography and movement. I get a sense it’s the choreography of America in all its variations. Perhaps tap-dancing is the only form of dance not included.  Thomas Kail’s direction also keeps the energy, relationships and pulse constantly moving and changing.   

The casting is deliberately provocative—actors of colour, or different ethnicities, are cast as real people who were white: Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson etc.  In irony on irony many of those actual people in Hamilton also owned slaves. The show got me thinking and wondering how an actor of colour, diverse ethnicity etc. deals with playing a character who “owned” a person of colour.

Except for Stephen Sondheim and a few others, most Broadway musicals are formulaic, or jukebox musicals with music from other sources tacked into the narrative. Hamilton is purely original and audacious.

How was the actual show? A tsunami of invention says it all. It was like being force-fed 10 pounds of Belgian chocolates….initially delicious but ultimately overwhelmingly rich. I appreciate the artistry of Lin-Manuel Miranda. His lyrics are brilliant and so clever but I mean it when I say it’s relentlessly inventive. It’s as if he is trying to top himself with each song.  And as such Hamilton is exhausting listening so hard to keep the thread of the story. The sound system for this production is terrific but characters often sing so quickly you might loose some facts and words.  Most of the cast do enunciate, but some rush the lyrics.  It’s wise to read the lyrics beforehand to keep all the characters straight. (The lyrics are conveniently online with annotation).

The cast is pulsing with energy. I was grateful for King George—comic relief, lilting music, very funny and the only character on stage who has scenes by himself. Neil Haskell gives a cheeky performance as the arrogant King George.  The other scenes are full of swirling characters and dancers.  However, there comes a time in the second Act, or even in the overlong first Act, when you just want them to shut up, truly, and let you breathe. We get that late in Act II with the song “It’s Quiet Uptown” a song about forgiveness. Delicate, slow and heartbreaking.

Comment. I am glad I saw Hamilton for the second time as it turns out, to have a clear view of the physical accomplishment of the production, and a greater appreciation of the actual accomplishment of the creative force of musical theatre known as Lin-Manuel Miranda. But am also curious about the many detractors who question what was left out.

Ishmael Reed, poet, writer, critic being one. It will be interesting reading about the other side of that story.   

David Mirvish Presents:

Opened: Feb. 12, 2020.

Closes: May 17, 2020.

Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes.

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