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Spamilton: An American Parody

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 8, 2016

Chris Anthony Giles, Nicholas Edwards, Dan Rosales,
Juwan Crawley, and Nora Schell
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Just because you're a phenomenon doesn't mean you're bulletproof. Sure, a truckload of Tonys, a Pulitzer Prize, sold-out houses for months on end, and public attention more bottomless than anyone in his right mind would have thought Broadway could produce today are thrilling, and all that and much more has been lavished on Hamilton. But if you're honest with yourself and scratch the surface, is Lin-Manuel Miranda's ultra-hit really any different than any other smash of the last decade or two, or three, or five? And if you conclude that it's not, doesn't it deserve the same treatment those titles did: an honest, and hopefully hilarious, examination that puts its feats, its foibles, and (gasp) even its failures in the proper theatrical context?

After spending decades doing just this with Forbidden Broadway, turning musicals' own compositions against them with targeted rewrites and rethinks, Gerard Alessandrini is now training his lens on our current be-all-end-all success with Spamilton: An American Parody, which just opened at The Triad. As with his scorching revue series, he's saying things that many think—but are uncomfortable uttering aloud—while acknowledging with admiration, and even love, what Miranda's once-in-a-generation show has accomplished. So whether you're its biggest fan or, like me, a bit more skeptical of its achievements, there's something for you here—which would explain why it's already one of the summer's hottest tickets, and, like its inspiration, isn't likely to slow down anytime soon.

Alessandrini, who wrote and directed, hasn't lost his flair for tackling taboos. Perhaps the most imposing he assaults here is Miranda himself, as the nexus of one of the industry's foremost promotion machines. The opener tweaks his hagiography at the hands of the press: "He's a salsa hip-hop main man / Broadway's been / Less crappy / Since the happy day / You came / And the world's gonna / Know your name." Later, the cast sings, to the title tune of Miranda's first Main Steam (and Tony-winning) effort, "In the hype / Hamilton's piping hot today / In the hype / We're overripe but not passé / In the hype / Lin-Manuel is God they say / He will wipe / All other useless news away!"

There's the continuing suggestion that, for the sake of argument, his lyrics aren't all that—"There's a million / Rhymes I haven't trashed but / Just you wait!" Miranda himself (as played, with self-adoring relish, by Dan Rosales) sings early on, and Stephen Sondheim (a jubilant Juwan Crawley) remarks later, "Excuse my bite / And go fly a kite / But I caught you / And I spot you / In a mis-rhyme blight"—and that he tends to quote other sources more than is strictly advisable. A whole song is even skewered by former featured star (and, again, Tony winner) Daveed Diggs (Nicholas Edwards, charismatic and excellent), for its impenetrable density: "The lyrics go by so fast / You are in the abyss / I see you sittin' there and looking befuddled / I guess my diction is sloppy or muddled / We're telling a complex plot / And what did you miss?"

Maybe Hamilton's effect on other shows is what others say it is ("Every Big Show has the right to be vapid," sings Leslie Odom, Jr., as enacted by a pitch-perfect Chris Anthony Giles, as he assesses today's general producing trends to a melody from Assassins), and maybe it's not (the casts of Shuffle Along and American Psycho are none too happy about their jobs fates). And the chances are that, when the inevitable movie comes around, it won't continue the stage property's heralded starless inclusivity. (I won't spoil this number, gloriously interpreted as "The Film When It Happens," as it contains the evening's richest lyrics and ideas, but its lampooning of the reactions of everyone from Odom to Barbra Streisand in the throes of Hollywood fever is worth the price of admission.)

The trip down these particular roads is a wall-to-wall joy, really, and, through both his writing and his silly but fat-free staging, Alessandrini makes it obvious that he knows something unusual and even historic is going on here. (The finale, which ties this show with another classic that's inextricably tied to a landmark American political era of a half-century ago, makes this explicit.) And everyone around Alessandrini, including the witty costume designer Dustin Cross (who builds on, and giddily inflates, the original's now-meets-then ideas), choreographer Gerry McIntyre (who does the same thing with the dances), the tireless musical director and pianist Fred Barton, and the cast (which also includes the stellar, chameleonic Nora Schell as all the women in Hamilton and half the women outside it) meets those sky-high standards.

Spamilton falters, though, when it bogs itself down in Alessandrini's own tropes. The portrayals of Bernadette Peters and Liza Minnelli, for example, feel less like structural necessities than they do hastily conceived opportunities to give the ridiculously gifted Forbidden Broadway stalwart Christine Pedi something to do. And cameos by Avenue Q, The Lion King, Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell, and a trio of pop stars (Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé, and Gloria Estefan), hint at a desperation that makes you wonder if, even with all the ammunition at his disposal, Alessandrini can ever strain too far from the gimmick he spent so many years perfecting.

The good news is, you won't have time to reflect on such things for long—for well over an hour, Alessandrini and his crack crew give you plenty to marvel and laugh at, and that's what you'll come away remembering. It isn't the equivalent of seeing the real thing, of course, but if, like millions of others, you can't get tickets to it, this will supercharge the experience of listening to the cast recording; or if you've already gone and want another perspective, this is as rational and clear-eyed a one as you're apt to find. Despite what certain wags (including, sigh, yours truly) may have thought once upon a time, Hamilton is in it for the duration. If there's any comedic justice, Spamilton will stick around for just as long.

Through October 30
The Triad, 158 West 72nd Street
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