Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's reviews of Cave Boys, The Snowy Day and Other Stories by Ezra Jack Keats, Kelli O'Hara with Seth Rudetsky, It's Only a Play
With the musical on the verge of total world domination, the big question is, "does Hamilton live up to the hype?" The answer is a resounding "yes"!
The show covers slightly over a quarter of a century in Hamilton's life, from the summer of 1776 to his famous death from a duel with his longtime friend and rival Aaron Burr in 1804. Over the course of the musical, Miranda manages to squeeze in tons of history, both on the national front as well as from Hamilton's personal life. Via the sung-through show's dozens of songs, the plot incorporates such well-known historical figures as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and King George as it portrays Hamilton's rise to fame and fortune and his place in history while his somewhat reckless behavior is continually pitted against Burr's more cautious approach. Hamilton was one of America's most influential and controversial founding fathers and Hamilton covers a lot of ground in showing how he influenced our political system, helped write the Federalist Papers, was the first secretary of the Treasury, and was also involved in a highly publicized sex scandal.
Miranda's score interweaves soul, hip-hop, rap, jazz, pop, and traditional musical theatre ballads and upbeat ensemble numbers to evoke a rich tapestry of musical styles. His book and lyrics beautifully portray Hamilton's successes and failures as symbolically in line with those of America's, as if to say we are all the same and that, as much as times change, the past and the present are one, especially considering how in the musical we see them debating the merits and meaning of the words of our Constitution just as we still do today. There are a lot of songs and lyrics in the show, but Miranda's words are succinct, descriptive and easy to follow while fleshing out the characters to portray their beliefs and their inner struggles and also propelling the plot forward. His catchy musical hooks and the use of various themes that are reprised throughout the show help underscore the relevance of the people and the major events in the plot.
Hamilton was a poor, teenage immigrant from the Caribbean when he came to America and there were rumors that one of his parents was of mixed race, though that rumor isn't exactly touched upon in the musical. As on Broadway, director Thomas Kail's superb multi-racial cast tie into Hamilton's immigrant status (and possibly even that rumor) as if to say that that we are all equal no matter the color of our skin and that you don't necessarily have to be white to succeed in America. It's a powerful statement made all the more powerful by a cast that embodies their roles with passion and poise.
The cast for the national tour don't attempt to mirror or copy their original Broadway cast counterparts, instead making their parts their own with added personal inflection. Austin Scott is appropriately rambunctious, ambitious, eager and reckless as Hamilton, though as the years pass in the plot and Hamilton's personal setbacks begin to add up we see though the nuance Scott brings to the part how Hamilton changes and becomes more introspective and understanding. Scott's singing voice is stronger and purer than Miranda's (the original Broadway Hamilton), which will be a nice bonus to hear for any audience member who has memorized the cast album. As Burr, Nicholas Christopher is the almost polar opposite of Scott, with lyric and dialogue delivery that come across as well thought out and somewhat reserved, though there is still just as much power and passion in his performance as there is in Scott's.
As Eliza, Hamilton's wife, Julia K. Harriman projects a sense of refined elegance, purity, and emotional pain as she experiences suffering, but she also instills a strength in her character that builds until the emotional ending. Isaiah Johnson is the model figure of strength, authority and influence as George Washington. Sabrina Sloan is excellent as Eliza's sister Angelica, who, while attracted to Alexander, steps aside so her sister can marry him. Peter Matthew Smith is perfectly insufferable as the comical King George, while Josh Andrés Rivera, Rubén J. Carbajal, and Mathenee Treco provide ample contributions, both serious and comical, at first as Hamilton's friends and in the second act as Jefferson, Hamilton's son, and James Madison, respectively. Amber Iman plays another of Eliza's sisters, Peggy, and a woman who brings scandal to Alexander with humor and grace.
Kail's direction is incredibly impressive. He uses a cast and ensemble that play multiple parts and hardly ever leave the stage, and a massive and simple but stunningly beautiful set designed by David Korins with a turntable that is never overused, plus Howell Binkley's constantly changing lighting that always pinpoints the action and uses shadows and color elegantly to bring an epic scope and feeling to this story. Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography is precise and full of angles and depth in the intricate steps and positions the ensemble form. Paul Tazewell's costumes are period centric and beautiful in their simplicity.
It's been a while since there has been a musical that has changed the way we think about the art form. I'd have to go back about 30 years to when Les Misérables first took the world by storm to find a piece of musical theatre that found a similar way to bring an epic story to life so vibrantly on stage. While Hamilton doesn't quite have the same emotional payoff that Les Misérables has (chalk that up somewhat to the slight disconnection from the audience to the cast that this show will face when playing very large venues as it tours across the country), it has an infectious energy and modern sensibility that Les Misérables didn't. Miranda's intricate and massive score, the use of the multi-racial cast, the vibrant and distinct creative elements, and Kail's focused and precise direction come together to make this an epic masterpiece. Hamilton makes history accessible like never before by using modern musical styles and a cast that is more representative of the make-up of America to humanize and breathe life into the people in our history books.
Hamilton, through February 25th, 2018, at ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue in Tempe AZ. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480 965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit http://hamiltonmusical.com/us-tour.
Book, Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, based on Ron Chernow's