Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Subtitled "An American Musical," Hamilton tells the story of immigrant Alexander Hamilton and his impactful life, including his pivotal roles in the Revolutionary War and as part of George Washington's first cabinet, as they establish our government from scratch. Not only is Washington a primary character, but so are Thomas Jefferson and other prominent historical characters. This centuries-old story is told through the lens of today's musical styles and language. Miranda was inspired to write the show after reading the 2004 biography "Alexander Hamilton" by Ron Chernow.
Lin-Manual Miranda's book for the show is bold, varied and sweeping, yet also very personal. The humble and inspiring story of Alexander Hamilton is told side by side with the story of the birth of our country. The writing in Hamilton is such that the content drives the form instead of the other way around. When brevity and efficiency in the storytelling will do, Miranda gives us that, often in the form of narration which in lesser hands would feel like a cop-out. When detailed explanations and depth are called for, he supplies that instead. For a story that includes such high stakes, both personally for the characters and historically for our nation, those pivotal moments are matched by superb quality in the craft, even if the dialogue and musical styles are those not usually associated with musical theater, or of the time period of the story.
Hamilton has been described by some as a rap musical, but that's an over-simplification. Sure, there are rap songs, but also present are sweet R&B numbers, pop love ballads, drinking songs, hip-hop, and traditional musical theater tunes. The back-to-back songs "Helpless" and "Satisfied" show the same scene from two different perspectives and in two different styles, and both are enormously impactful and skillfully constructed. "Yorktown" has a lot of history packed inside its lyrics, along with many musical motifs coming together to a crescendo, both musically and in the storytelling. "Cabinet Battle #1" is a rap throw-down in musical theater context, "Take a Break" pushes the story forward while delivering beautiful counterpoint melodies and harmonies, and "Say No to This" actually sounds like sexual infidelity through the music, even without the witty lyrics that punctuate the point.
There isn't a better example anywhere of an R&B song than "The Schuyler Sisters," nor of a gospel anthem than George Washington's "One Last Time." King George's "You'll Be Back" sounds just like a 1960s British invasion band chart topper. The dense and expressive lyrics in songs such as "Alexander Hamilton," "My Shot," "What'd I Miss," and "The Room Where It Happens" convey a 200-year old story but with modern vernacular. Alex Lacamoire's contributions as orchestrator and co-vocal arranger (with Miranda) shouldn't be overlooked, as they are part of what makes this score so exhilarating.
Despite the many kudos that Hamilton justifiably deserves, it isn't a perfect show. There are too many false rhymes, it drags in a couple of spots, and act one feels like it should naturally end earlier than it does. What sets Hamilton apart from other shows is its sheer number of "wow moments." Even very good shows are lucky to have five to ten of these moments, whether through the thrill of a musical melody, the emotional impact of dramatic interchange between characters, or the genius in the staging of a scene, it is cathartic for the audience. Hamilton must have over thirty of these moments (depending on the theatergoer). This is what makes this show so very special.
Director Thomas Kail provides fluid staging and a cohesiveness which feels natural. The choreography by Cincinnati native Andy Blankenbuehler is vibrant, sharp, modern and dynamic, with the dances at times emphasizing the lyrics, dialogue, or emotional responses being presented. Andre Cerullo leads an excellent 10-piece orchestra here in Cincinnati.
In Hamilton, there is an intentional casting of many of the leading characters with black, Asian, and Hispanic actors to reflect the diverse make-up of America today. The cast for this tour consists of uniformly top-notch singers, all great fits vocally and delivering the material up to the level of the original Broadway cast. As Alexander Hamilton, Edred Utomi skillfully captures the many levels of the protagonist, from naïve teenager with great ambition to broken, grieving father, and everything in between. Josh Tower is intense, raw, and clearly conveys the "play-it-safe" approach of Aaron Burr, making him the antithesis of Alexander at many moments in their lives. As Angelica Schuyler, Stephanie Umoh delivers an especially heartbreaking "Satisfied," and Hannah Cruz embodies the kind-hearted nature and emotional center of the show as Eliza Hamilton.
Isa Briones displays versatility portraying both the flighty Peggy Schuyler as well as the temptress Maria Reynolds. Paul Oakley Stovall (George Washington) and Bryson Bruce (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson) have perhaps the biggest shoes to fill in regard to comparisons to the original performers in the roles, but both do extremely well. Stovall gives the first president the stately yet humble attitude required, and Bruce provides comic relief, fast-paced rapping, and frenetic energy for both of his characters. Peter Matthew Smith is aptly pompous, silly, and oddly threatening as King George. Jon Viktor Corpuz brings an earnestness to both of his roles (Laurens/Phillip Hamilton), and understudy Dan Belnavis nailed the dual characters of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison at the performance I saw.
The unit set by David Korins is a multi-level wooded scaffold in front of exposed brick, a functional and period-looking foundation which opens up the performance space for smaller set pieces to further define the setting. The lighting by Howell Binkley is extremely varied, providing showbiz pizazz at times and delicate atmospheric intimacy during other scenes. Paul Tazewell's costumes are handsome and generally period-appropriate, with just enough variation to be hip.
Cincinnati had a teaser for how good Hamilton would be, thanks to the recent production of Miranda's In the Heights at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. Hamilton is even better. With a wholly remarkable cast performing this unique and groundbreaking piece, let's hope that this is just the first of many stops for the show in our city.
Hamilton, through March 10, 2019, at the Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati OH. Tickets can be ordered by calling 800-294-1816 or visiting www.cincinnatiarts.org/aronoff-center. For more information on the tour, visit hamiltonmusical.com/us-tour/.