Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of Godspell
The city of Dayton can collectively give a sigh of relief! With shows in New York and across the country canceling due to the spread of the Omicron variant, the opening of the city's first time hosting the juggernaut Hamilton: An American Musical was far from a given. But, arrive it has at the Schuster Center. Hamilton delivers on the very high expectations fans have for the show, thanks in large part to the wonderful cast for this tour.
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, true story is told, however, through the lens of today's musical styles and language. Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights) was inspired to write the show after reading the 2004 biography "Alexander Hamilton" by Ron Chernow. The musical took New York City by storm in 2015 and won 11 Tony Awards, and Disney+ streams a filmed version of the stage show with the original Broadway cast.
Lin-Manuel Miranda's sweeping book for the show is bold and varied, 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 nation. The writing 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 country, those pivotal moments are matched by superb quality in the craft. Even though the dialogue and musical styles are those not usually associated with musical theater, or of the time period of the story, they effectively tell this story in an engaging manner.
Hamilton has been described by some as a rap musical, but that's an over-simplification. While there are rap songs, the score also includes 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 multiple 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 musically. There aren't many better examples 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 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 either, 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. Too many false rhymes exist, it drags in a couple of spots, and Act 1 feels like it should have naturally ended 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. Such moments are cathartic for the audience. Hamilton must have more than 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 that feels natural. The choreography by Southwest Ohio native Andy Blankenbuehler is vibrant, sharp, modern and dynamic, with the dances at times emphasizing the lyrics, dialogue, or emotional responses being presented and matching the pulse of the music. Roberto Sinha leads an excellent 10-piece orchestra.
With Hamilton, there is an intentional casting of many of the leading roles with Black, Asian, and Hispanic actors to reflect the diverse makeup 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 that of the original Broadway cast. As Hamilton, Pierre Jean Gonzalez skillfully captures the various situations and personalities of the protagonist, from ambitious teenager to grieving father, and everything in between. His clear singing and perfect balance of emotions provide a fine foundation for the show. Jared Dixon is direct and accessible in his performance, and clearly conveys the "play-it-safe" approach of Aaron Burr that makes him the antithesis of Alexander at so many moments in their lives. Ta'rea Campbell (Angelica Schuyler) delivers an especially heartbreaking "Satisfied" and is vocally impressive throughout. University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music grad Stephanie Jae Park embodies the tenderhearted nature and emotional center of the show as Eliza Hamilton.
As George Washington, Marcus Choi provides a regal and more subtle take on the role compared to others who have played it, and understudy Marcus John is aptly playful and funny in the dual roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Neil Haskell is fittingly pompous and silly as King George. Another understudy, Meecah, displays versatility portraying both the flighty Peggy Schuyler and the temptress Maria Reynolds. Elijah Malcomb brings an earnestness to both of his roles, Laurens and Phillip Hamilton, and Desmond Sean Ellington provides delightfully varied interpretations of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison.
The unit set by David Korins is a multi-level, wooden scaffold in front of exposed brick, a functional and period-looking foundation that 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, but with just enough variation from historical accuracy to be hip.
Dayton is lucky to be able to host the tour of this wonderful show. Other tours have had to be rescheduled or cut short due to COVID-19. Audiences are in for a treat, with a top-notch cast performing this unique and groundbreaking piece.
Hamilton runs through February 6, 2022, at the Schuster Center, 1 W. 2nd St, Dayton OH. For tickets and information, call 937-821-5811 or visit www.daytonlive.org. For more information on the tour, visit hamiltonmusical.com/us-tour/.