Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
So, is Hamilton really all that much? My answer: yes, absolutely. With over fifty years of theatergoing under my belt, I am prepared to say Hamilton is the best show I have ever seen.
Hamilton charts founding father Alexander Hamilton's meteoric climb from an impoverished orphan in the Caribbean island of St. Croix, to a New York City attorney who joins ranks with revolutionaries fighting against British rule, and befriends Aaron Burr, another fast-rising attorney. Hamiltonof low social rank but handsome and well-spokenmarries into the influential Schuyler family, becomes George Washington's right-hand man in the Revolutionary War, and leads the fight for the adoption of the constitution that unites the thirteen separate, squabbling former colonies into a single nation. Along the way, Hamilton and Burr repeatedly knock heads and their friendship badly deteriorates, culminating in their infamous duel.
For the show to be fully effective requires a Burr and a Hamilton of equal weight, who strongly impress the audience from their first sung note of their ambition and intelligence. We have that in Joseph Morales as Hamilton, and Nik Walker as Burr. Morales bears a winning resemblance to Miranda, who created the role of Hamilton along with the entire show, both in appearance and voice. Hamilton's undeniable brilliance, confidence, and sense of justice is expressed in every word and gesture, starting with the declarative "My Shot." In "Hurricane," Morales shows Hamilton's anxiety as he faces implosion, straining to use his vast verbal gifts to survive. With steely resolve, Walker embodies Burr's politically cast ego and makes visible Burr's steadily rising resentment toward Hamilton. Walker tears down the house, proclaiming Burr's stance on life in "Wait for It" and the bitterness of Burr's envy in "The Room Where It Happens." His deep voice carries a darkness that wrestles throughout with the lighter tones of Morales' Hamilton. The two actors brilliantly display their characters' contradictory approaches in "Non-Stop," while both express tenderness and yearning in "Dear Theodosia," as each ponders impending fatherhood, and their desire to leave behind a legacy
At the center of the storm between those two men is George Washington, portrayed with gravitas by Marcus Choi. His soulful delivery of "One Last Time" makes Washington's contribution to the dawn of our nation indisputable. Choi enables us to recognize the honorable foundation at the core of all that the founding fathers accomplished. Playing both Marquise de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, Kyle Scatliffe is a delightful show boat, dishing out first French, then Southern bluster, with a star turn in "What'd I Miss." Jon Patrick Walker is hilarious in several appearances as King George III, giving petulant responses from the British monarch to the actions of his unruly subjects in America, treating them as unappreciative mistresses.
Shoba Narayan is touching, expressing earnestness in both love and heartbreak as Hamilton's wife Eliza. Her gorgeous voice declares the giddy onset of love in "Helpless" and rises to soaring heights in the hymn to betrayal, "Burn." A tender duet with Morales, "That Would Be Enough," is likewise beautifully rendered. Ta'rea Campbell as Eliza's sister Angelica, who may have been Hamilton's true but unrequited love, projects intelligence and sass, and is especially stunning expressing the sacrifice filial love imposes on Angelica and Hamilton in "Satisfied," and evoking heartbreaking empathy in "It's Quiet Uptown." Nyla Sostre as Maria Reynolds, whose affair with Hamilton attained notoriety, conveys soulful longing, in tandem with Morales in "Say No to This." Singing together in "The Schuyler Sisters," Narayan, Campbell and Sostre deliver buoyant optimism as they declare their gratitude to be alive at a time when history is being made in New York, "the greatest city in the world."
The ensemble is amazing, with director Thomas Kail's highly elaborate staging requiring them to be constantly shifting as they convey, through music and movement, the events that surround Hamilton's saga, whether soldiers fighting at Yorktown, the wounded survivors of that battle, observers with ringside seats to a cabinet meeting recast as a verbal sparring match between Hamilton and Jefferson, wedding celebrants, New Yorkers spreading rumors, or even the very air through which a bullet passes from Burr's gun to Hamilton. The ensemble is not in the background to enlarge or embellish the story, but is essential to the unspooling of the narrative. The tireless physicality and presence of each member of the ensemble is breathtaking, especially in recreating Andy Blankenbuehler's non-stop choreography.
The set is sublimely simple, with a brick backdrop that suggests the swarming narrow streets of early New York, with wood frame scaffolds and ladders that suggest a nation under construction. A center turntable is used ingeniously to move characters through the many changes in location without calling for intrusive set changes. That set, along with the spot-perfect costumes, lighting and sound, are just as in the original on Broadway. Though the Orpheum has almost twice as many seats as the Richard Rodgers Theatre, Hamilton's home on Broadway, the physical production fits well in the larger expanse, the production no less engaging or accessible.
The frequent use of rap, with its incredibly dense word count, allows the lyrics to deliver a huge amount of narrative, while also making early American history as current as this week. The same is true of the deliberate multi-racial casting, with all of the leading figures, aside from King George, played by actors of color. Our current debates cast recent arrivals and minority advocacy groups as somehow at odds with American greatness. Miranda reminds us that, in their time, the revolutionaries and founding fathers were as outside the seats of power as are today's resistance groups, guided by the highest ideals and riddled by human failings. And lest you not be a fan of rap, the score also contains a raft of other styles, including rhythm and blues, Beatles-like vaudeville turns, and classic musical theater songs, all beautifully performed by a ten-piece orchestra conducted by Roberto Sinha.
So is the case made for Hamilton as the best show ever? Is the score the most lyrically beautiful? I think not, as melodies from Carousel, Titanic, The Light in the Piazza and others swell in my mind. Is it the funniest? No, many musical comedies are much, much funnier. Its amazing choreography does not match West Side Story, A Chorus Line, An American in Paris and others. Its design is brilliant, but The Lion King reigns there. Each of Hamilton's components is exceptional but not the "best," yet Miranda and his creative team meld the elements into a whole that is truly greater than the sum of its wonderful parts, calibrated to the pulse of today while paying respect to the legacy of American musical theater. They deploy their artistry in the service of a vitally important story that informs Americans of a history most of us little remember, and make a compelling case for why those events of over two hundred years ago matter so very much today. It is our past made flesh, made now, made urgent. That is the stroke of genius that makes Hamilton the best of all shows.
What more to say? I doubt you need convincing that Hamilton is a fantastic show. Whether or not you agree that it is the greatest accomplishment of musical theater, an American-born marriage of art and entertainment, is immaterial. I only wish I could spot you for the price of a ticket.
Hamilton, through October 7, 2018, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. The run is largely sold out with very limited inventory remaining. Check Ticketmaster.com regularly for availability. For information and call 800-982-2787 or go to hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit hamiltonmusical.com/us-tour/
Book, Music and Lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda, inspired by the book "Alexander Hamilton" by Ron Chernow; Director: Thomas Kail; Choreographer: Andy Blankenbuehler; Music Supervisor and Orchestrations: Alex Lacamoire; Scenic Design: David Korins; Costume Design: Paul Tazewell; Lighting Design: Howell Binkley; Sound Design: Nevin Steinberg; Wig and Hair Design: Charles G. LaPointe; Arrangements: Lin-Manuel Miranda and Alex Lacamoire; Music Coordinators: Michael Keller and Michael Aarons; Associate Music Supervisor: Matt Gallagher; Music Director: Roberto Sinha; Casting: Telsey + Company, Bethany Knox, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Anna R. Kaltenbach; Associate and Supervising Director: Patrick Vassel; Associate and Supervising Choreographers: Stephanie Klemons and Michael Balderrama;
Cast: Ta'rea Campbell (Angelica Schuyler), Marcus Choi (George Washington), Daniel Gaymon (Charles Lee), Stephen Hernandez (George Eacker), Wonza Johnson (Philip Schuyler/James Reynolds/ Doctor), Elijah Malcomb (John Laurens/Philip Hamilton), Brandt Martinez (Samuel Seabury), Joseph Morales (Alexander Hamilton), Shoba Narayan (Eliza Hamilton), Desmond Sean Ellington (Hercules Mulligan/ James Madison), Kyle Scatliffe (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson), Nyla Sostre (Peggy Schuyler/ Maria Reynolds), Jon Patrick Walker (King George), Nik Walker (Aaron Burr).
Ensemble: Aaron J. Albano, Tia Altinay, Conroe Brooks, Daniel Gaymon, Stephen Hernandez, Kristen Hoagland, Abby Jaros, Wonza Johnson, Brandt Martinez, Tyler McKenzie, Justice Moore, Jen Sese.