Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Private Bank Theatre
Review by John Olson|

Miguel Cervantes and Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
One question is always there for a new tour: Does the cast give performances that compare favorably to the original (which in this case is a very high bar indeed given the show nearly swept the musical acting categories at this yearÂ’s Tonys)? For the Chicago production of Hamilton, which is no longer being called a tour, but a separate sit-down production with the first national tour launching in March, the question is still relevant and the answer is yes. Producers Jeffrey Seller et al have given Chicago a cast that could have opened the show on Broadway. With two-time Tony nominee Joshua Henry as Burr, Tony winner Karen Olivo as Angelica Schuyler, and the estimable Broadway vet Alexander Gemignani as King George, there can be no doubt that was the producers' intention. Equally impressive are the lesser known performers in the cast, including Miguel Cervantes, who has the title role originated by author Lin-Manuel Miranda (IBDB says Cervantes was an alternate in the role this past summer, though that's not included in his credit in this production's program), "American Idol" finalist Ari Afsar as Eliza, Jonathan Kirkland as Washington, Chris De'Sean Lee as Lafayette/Jefferson, and José Ramos as John Laurens/Philip Hamilton.

Henry's powerful voice and presence support his ironic interpretation of the duplicitous Aaron Burr—the ostensible villain of the piece who we know from history will ultimately kill Hamilton. Cervantes, taking on the toughest job of all in following in Miranda as Hamilton, hasn't completely found a way to make it his own (or to match the interpretation of Miranda, from what I've seen in clips), but his Hamilton is layered and convincing through the stages of the man's life of nearly 50 years. Cervantes effectively gives the character's journey from a very young and very ambitious man through maturity as he succeeds in war and government, even as it separates him from his wife and children, ultimately experiencing depression over the loss of his son in a duel that would foreshadow his own demise.

Ms. Olivo, who left Broadway for Madison, Wisconsin, a few years after her Tony win for West Side Story, shows a persona and vocal quality distinct from her previous roles in West Side Story, In the Heights, and Rent, as the elegant yet independent Angelica Schuyler—the sister attracted to her brother-in-law Hamilton but who remains respectful of their marriage. As Eliza, Hamilton's wife and Angelica's sister, Ari Afsar displays an equally lovely voice and grace, touching us with her heartbreak after learning of Hamilton's affair with Maria Reynolds and experiencing the loss of their son.

Perhaps the most unexpected delight in the cast is Gemignani as King George. A larger man than Jonathan Groff, who originated the role on Broadway, Gemignani's King is an imposing and arrogant fop with a booming voice and wry sense of humor. The actor's powerful, mellow baritone and perfect timing make his role a gem of comic relief. Playing Lafayette and Jefferson, Chris De'Sean Lee—who just completed his junior year of college—is a real find. As the flamboyant Lafayette, he executes Miranda's dense hip-hop lyrics expertly and easily switches into a jazzy mode as the Jefferson who returns from France in act two. Kirkland has the requisite power and authority for George Washington, while Ramos is touching as both the abolitionist John Laurens and Hamilton's son Philip, who each met untimely deaths.

As impressive as any of the featured actors, though, is the ensemble. They execute Andy Blankenbuehler's sharp, athletic and graceful dances not only with balletic precision, but with dramatic points of view that one doesn't always see at the ballet. This company was rehearsed by director Thomas Kail and choreographer Blankenbuehler and played three weeks of previews before the production opened. The preparation shows. The entire company performs with confidence and conviction.

Those who have already seen Hamilton may not be as interested in a second question surrounding this musical. Does it live up to its reputation and the expectations that have led to advance sales of probably over $200 million in New York and Chicago combined? Can that even be answered? Surely the expectations must differ by person. Will it be the best show you've ever seen? Move you to tears? Change your life?

For many, yes, I believe it will change lives. The show has transcended beyond just being a Broadway show—it's a cultural event. A "must see" attracting new and infrequent theater goers. I expect it will excite and lead them to appreciate and enjoy highly theatrical, dramatic techniques that are more symbolic than literal, realistic representations—and for many, lead them to want more. It may increase their appreciation and comfort with action on a unit set that is meant to represent many places of the story (as in Hamilton, ships, homes, offices, a New York City street) without literally resembling any of them (as do the sets, for example, Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera or The Book of Mormon. For more frequent musical theater fans, it will be recognized as another milestone in the development of musical theatre: a latter-day Oklahoma!, West Side Story or Rent.

What's most obviously innovative is the extensive use of hip-hop for songs and dialogue, but that's been done before, both in Miranda's In the Heights and, for one example, in Chicago Shakespeare's Othello: the Remix. It's also still unexpected to tell a period story through contemporary music, language and dance, but that was done to great effect in Spring Awakening, or going farther back, Jesus Christ Superstar.

What is most striking to me is the use of the ensemble to not only represent people in crowd scenes, but through the extensive dances, to provide a non-literal, visceral sense of the energy of the story's moments. This impressionistic use of dance and movement as a backdrop or comment on the story seems to me the real innovation here, though not the only distinction. As for the content of the dances themselves, they combine moves from hip-hop with jazz dance, dances of the period to create choreography that is quite different from what we're used to seeing in musicals. Combined with Kail's blocking, which keeps surprising us as his performers move around the stage, the ever-changing lighting effects by Howell Binkley, and Miranda's dense lyrics, Hamilton has so much going on both visually and verbally, it's a lot to take in on a first viewing.

I deliberately avoided much exposure to the Hamilton before seeing this production, preferring to ultimately view it "cold." I don't recommend that for first-time viewers. While the lyrics and exposition are generally pretty clear on an initial viewing, absorbing them takes active listening that makes it harder to focus as much as on the stunning visuals going on at the same time. An usher I spoke with at intermission was watching the show for the eighth time and said she saw new things in it with each repeat viewing. For a regular theatergoer that kind of revisiting will be difficult, but I do think it would help to listen to the recording and read the lyrics first.

Acknowledging the earlier influences on the creative team of Miranda, Kail and Blankenbuehler is not meant to diminish their accomplishments with Hamilton. All innovators build on the work of those before them and what they've done here is to combine disparate artistic elements in the service of a story that resonates on several levels. Just as modern dress productions of Shakespeare can draw parallels between his text and today's society, or as Spring Awakening's rock score and contemporary dance made the sexual tension and angst of 19th century German teenagers seem real, Hamilton makes us feel the emotions of the 18th century American colonists who risked all to rebel against their King, as in the song "The Story of Tonight," when Hamilton, Lafayette, Laurens and Hercules Mulligan (Wallace Smith) sing of the urgency of that moment in history. Throughout the score, words, music and movement brilliantly mix and match contemporary genres including hip-hop, jazz and traditional musical theater to spark visceral emotions in us while the designers take us back to the 1770s. The wood and brick unit set by David Korins, the stylized/almost-but-not-completely period costumes by Paul Tazewell and the lighting by Binkley that evokes the natural illumination of a candlelight era, are all we need to imagine ourselves back in Colonial America.

Miranda's words are stunning in their denseness, but also in their conciseness and wit. He covers some 30 years of American and personal history in three hours while still telling it in personal and human terms. In the best musical theatre tradition, he finds emotions in his story of national heroes that have resonance for a wide audience. Hamilton's personal ambition and drive becomes "My Shot," the desire to be important and a part of leadership leads to "The Room Where It Happens," and the loss of Philip Hamilton is the haunting "It's Quiet Uptown."

The first act situations often involve crowds—demonstrations, battles, an elegant ball, the energy of New York City—and focuses on the relationships to the larger society. In act two, after freedom has been won and King George tells the former colonists "Good luck governing," the story gets more personal and intimate. It becomes about politics and personal integrity rather than warfare. The challenges of building a nation take a personal toll on Hamilton, his family and Burr. It's a quieter, slower and gentler act, though still with some stunning group numbers, as Miranda's themes shift to choices of personal responsibility and honor. Hamilton admits to his extramarital affair with a married woman rather than have the public believe he embezzled public funds. He later convinces his son to respond to a challenge for a duel by participating in it but not shooting—a recommendation resulting in the son's death and eventually in Hamilton's own demise at the hands of Aaron Burr.

Hamilton could be criticized for being too stylish, drawing attention to its means of expression—the hip-hop, the extensive use of dance—as much as to the content itself. Yet, it's not cluttered and director Thomas Kail establishes himself as a major talent through his vision and for putting this all on stage in such a coherent and powerful manner. The words, music and movement are not meant to be simply showy but are all in service of the ideas, even if it is a bit daunting to take in.

The level of artistry is so high on so many levels, in all the artistic disciplines employed, that there is no question Hamilton has raised the bar for musical theater and that its commercial success is to be celebrated. If it attracts some audience members who want to see it because of their fear of missing out on the current big thing, so be it. They're going to be seeing theatrical art at its highest level. But all should know that Hamilton didn't come out of nowhere. The brilliant Miranda, Kail and Blankenbuehler have built on the work of others. So yes, by all means, see Hamilton, but you don't have to pay four figures to see it tomorrow. There's a lot of great theater on other stages right now as well. Take your time, pay face value for your Hamilton tickets and, while you're waiting for your performance date, catch some other shows with the money you'll have saved by not paying for scalped tickets. You'll find some pretty amazing stuff out there while you're waiting for your shot to see Hamilton.

Hamilton is in an open-ended run at the Private Bank Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, Chicago. Tickets are currently on sale through September 17, 2017, and may be purchased by phone at 800-775-2000 or online at