A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
On a personal note, it took me back more than twenty years when my editor for the children's music book I was commissioned to write for the popular World Almanac series wanted me to eliminate the sections about hip-hop. I knew enough to insist that rap was not a passing fad but as pertinent for that book as Beethoven and Mozart and traditional musical theater practitioners. But who knew that Mr. Miranda would apply his imagination and talent to upend all that angst about the musical genre's decline with a book musical told in the lyrical vernacular of hip-hop — and infuse it with other contemporary musical styles like jazz and pop.
What's more, there are several delightfully humorous nods to musical theater forefathers like Rodgers & Hammerstein and Gilbert & Sullivan; for example, Aaron Burr, whose fateful friendship with Hamilton is a core element of the plot, supports the young Hamilton's fiery polemics with "I'm with you, but the situation is fraught/You've got to be carefully taught". . . and George Washington introduces himself as "a modern major general."
Hamilton is not only a thoroughly entertaining musical but as diverse as the America we live in. That diversity is also reflected in its superb cast and staging. Its main and titular character is an immigrant. The French Lafayette is a temporary immigrant, having crossed the ocean to fight in the American revolution. Both these exuberant young men accompany a triumphant declaration of "Immigrants: We get the job done" with a jaunty high five.
For historical authenticity, Ron Chernow, whose biography of Alexander Hamilton is the musical's inspirational source, is on board as historical consultant. His presence enabled Miranda to take the fictional liberties necessary to musicalize and condense the story without compromising the facts about our "$10 founding father without a father."
At two and a half hours, Hamilton is quite faithful to Chernow's 800-page book. While the show's focus is on the personal connections of our young nation's headliners, it doesn't ignore Hamilton's role as the the founder of the nation's financial system.
The mostly sung libretto includes some heavy duty economic talk that's likely to bring the likes of economist Paul Krugman to the Newman Theater. But such potentially heavy fodder for a musical is actually great fun; case in point: a delightful rap debate between Hamilton and Jefferson about credit policy, moderated by Washington. Hamilton amusingly nails the slave-holding Jefferson for his vested interests with "A New Line Of Credit, A Financial Diuretic/ How Do You Not Get It? If We're Aggressive And Competitive/ the Union Gets A Boost. You'd Rather Give It A Sedative?/ a Civics Lesson From A Slaver. Hey Neighbor./ your Debts Are Paid Cuz You Don't Pay For Labor."
The lively opening number, "Alexander Hamilton," introduces us to the key characters and their connection to Hamilton. It also serves as a foretelling prologue.
Singing about how they fought with him are Hercules Mulligan (Okieriette Onadowan who also doubles as a curmugeonly and very funny James Madison) and the Marquis de Lafayette (He's hilarious as "the Lancelot of the Revolutionary set" who "came from afar just to say Bonsoir" — and aptly doubles as Jefferson who loved his ambassador's post in France).
John Laurens (Anthony Ramos, another double tasker) tells us that he died for Hamilton. George Washington (Christopher Jackson, a graduate of In the Heights will back his "I trusted him" by making Hamilton his war time aide-de-camp and first Secretary of the Treasury.
Aaron Burr (a terrific Leslie Odom Jr.) foretells the inevitable end with "I'm the damn fool that shot him." Singing "I loved him" in unison are the women Hamilton loved wisely as well as scandalously — his wife Eliza (Phillipa Soo who's even better here than in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 , another groundbreaking musical), her older sister Angelica (the dynamic Renee Elise Goldsberry), and Maria (Jasmine Cephas Jones as the first but hardly last woman to trap a politician in a sex scandal). And, of course, there's Hamilton himself played with convincing passion by Miranda.
Naturally, a not to be overlooked character in any story of the American Revolution is King George. And as played by Brian D'Ãrcy James, the only thing wrong with this Royal is that he makes just three brief, scene stealing appearances; they include "You'll Be Back" and a "what's next" challenge of "You've Been Freed/ Do You Know How Hard It Is To Lead?
As arranged and orchestrated by Alex Lacamoire and Mr. Miranda, the ten piece off-stage band never overwhelms the not to be missed lyrics. The shifts from Hamilton's arrival in New York, through the Revolutionary war and the first administrations, as well as three duels could easily be confusing. But director Thomas Kail, who also helmed In the Heights, has seen to it that we know just where in Hamilton's journey we are.
Andy Blankenbuehler, another In the Heights collaborator, has made what at first promises to exemplify the movement school of choreography, a double Wow!! The energetic, story supporting dancing is almost non-stop, which, given the excellence of the dancers, is a good thing.
The entire crafts team adds to the visual pleasures. Costumer Paul Tazewell combines the formal and avante-garde with velvet frocks and britches for the founding fathers and the undergarments of those outfits for the dancers. The cutting edge look and feel of the choreography is further enhanced by hair and wig expert Charles LaPointe.
While Hamilton did give away his shot with that fatal duel, Lin-Manual Miranda and his team have not thrown theirs away. My only bad news about this production is that, even with two extensions, getting tickets is subject to the luck of the draw and last minute cancellations due to illness or the weather.