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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lin-Manuel Miranda
Photo by Joan Marcus

When history comes alive (something it seldom does) in Hamilton, which just opened at The Public Theater, it tends to do so on the wave of a yawn. This new musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda may be many things—or, more accurately, it may be too many things—but exciting is not one of them.

To those familiar with In the Heights, the musical for which Miranda earned a 2008 Tony Award for Best Score, this should not come as much of a surprise. Miranda works well in the contemporary idiom, and is as skillful at deploying of-the-minute genres like rap and hip-hop as he is weaving in elements of more traditional theatrical forms, but generating excitement is not what he does. He's more of a comfort technician, gifted at making you feel better about what you already know and like than exposing you to anything new.

It's one thing when your subject is an Independence Day weekend in the barrio, and something else altogether when it's the circumstances and people surrounding America's actual independence and the growing pains associated with it. For Hamilton, Miranda, who has reunited with his In the Heights director (Thomas Kail), choreographer (Andy Blankenbuehler), and other assorted personnel, has attempted to adapt Ron Chernow's 2004 biography of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton using the tricks and techniques that served him so well on that earlier, lighter show. And the results are about as cluttered as you'd expect.

Miranda's affection for musical theatre shines throughout the two-hour-45-minute evening, but that's not always a good thing. Aside from jolting, mood-killing nods to the likes of South Pacific, The Pirates of Penzance, and more, you become acutely aware of just how much he's been influenced by better, more original shows. He attempts to replicate the sweep of Jesus Christ Superstar, but without the pungent overarching theme that fueled it. He shoots for an Evita-like all-encompassing biomusical without recognizing its adventure or tenacity. He touches on the epic panorama of Les Misérables with Pacific Overtures–style social significance, but forgoes their confidence and scope. And that, unlike with the obvious model of 1776, he thinks a history lesson is its own reward.

No, the show that this one most directly resembles is of a notably lesser pedigree: Holler If Ya Hear Me. In case you've forgotten, the Tupac Shakur jukebox musical lasted about a month this past summer, but didn't manage to prove much more than that rap is not an ideal medium for storytelling in this format. The dense rhymes and rhythms, coupled with repetitive (at best) and jumbled (at worst) compositions, left many songs sounding identical and tapering off into the air rather than capturing the unique character of the people and the places it documented. Hamilton is unquestionably better in every regard, owing to its having been written from scratch, but it suffers from all of these issues nonetheless.

It's easy to see what so captivated Miranda about this notion, though. Chernow's book is a surprisingly intense and vibrant look at a man modern history has largely brushed aside, and the flawed, power-defying rebels of that era organically correspond to the authority-disregarding rap stars of today. And certainly the real Hamilton, who immigrated to the colonies from the British West Indies, was instrumental in the crafting of many of our founding ideals and institutions, was embroiled in one of our earliest sex scandals, and died in a duel with Thomas Jefferson's vice president, Aaron Burr, is colorful enough to warrant the attention.

But here the dominant hue is sepia. Hamilton (played by Miranda) is a kind of superman, who, with minimal help, wins the Revolutionary War for George Washington (Christopher Jackson), argues for the Constitution in the Federalist Papers then pushes it through to adoption, salves the burgeoning union's financial ills by establishing a national bank, debates all comers under the table, and struggles to balance the competing affections of his wife, Eliza (Phillipa Soo), and her sister, Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry). All because, as he intones (endlessly) "I'm not throwin' away my shot."

This Hamilton is defined by little more than his immigrant background, and you won't learn much about his views on government or Federalist theory here; aside from his unquenchable ambition, there's nothing to make him special. That disconnects the man from the drama even more. Though Hamilton is clearly supposed to be a grotesque exaggeration as filtered through the envious mind of Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.), Miranda doesn't do much with this, and Burr is such an inconsistent, uninteresting presence (his lyrical leitmotif, and the prevailing basis for his relationship with Hamilton, is the fact that "Burr" rhymes with "sir") that you don't understand many nuances about him, either.

Though Miranda has admirably crammed his libretto with content, his writing is more about freestyling wordplay than unleashing narrative or unlocking personality. Events both crucial and throwaway—drinking, battling, arguing, wooing—unfold on a single plane, so that there can be no rise or fall of tension or suspense; rap loses much of its throb when it's all you hear. Only when it disappears and characters must sing their emotions, which happens exclusively in times of the greatest joy or trials, are the beating hearts within these passionate people revealed and more generous talents of earnestness allowed to bloom.

Otherwise, it's a stage packed with ciphers, with only the delightfully plaintive Soo (best known from Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812) and the brutally honest Goldsberry (many recent credits, including The Color Purple on Broadway) resembling genuine people. The other portrayals run the gamut from Jackson's youthful and unauthoritative Washington and Odom's blank Burr to Daveed Diggs as a grimacingly good-natured Lafayette and Jefferson and Okieriete Onaowdowan bewilderingly malevolent and nearly catatonic James Madison. Brian d'Arcy James does as much as he can (which is precious little) with the pop-crooning King George III, whose signature number ("You'll Be Back") may be atypically melodic but is hardly a highlight.

Though he was wonderful in his starring role in In the Heights, Miranda is terminally unappealing as Hamilton, finding nothing relatable or likable in the man and not even explaining what his drive is or where it came from. Miranda's acting is incredibly limited in range, and his voice even worse; he raps expertly and smoothly (by far better than anyone else onstage), but always in the same high, monotonic whine, which grows wearisome after a few minutes, to say nothing of a few hours.

Blankenbuehler's dances are much the same, vaguely mimicking the electric street combinations he created for In the Heights, but with a fraction of the originality and energy needed to make them more than background filler. (The dancers, who include So You Think You Can Dance's Thayne Jasperson, are not to be faulted.) Kail's direction, too, is static and uninventive, making regular use of Paul Tazewell's spot-on period costumes, Howell Binkley's overactive lights, and especially the triple turntables, multiple levels, and rolling staircases of David Korins's brick-and-wood brown-box set, all without sparking any detectable forward motion.

Does any of this matter? Probably not. The Public already has a red-hot hit on its hands, and you shouldn't be at all shocked if the swirling rumors about Hamilton transferring to Broadway before the end of the season are verified by the time you read this. There are different kinds of success, though, as Hamilton demonstrated as well as anyone. If Hamilton deserves credit for trying to set right the wrong of his dismissal from our cultural consciousness, Miranda's sacrificing the complexity and pageantry of history in favor of a short-term fix would seem to be deriving the wrong lessons from the man he is so intent on celebrating.

Through May 3
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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