Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
Based on the 2004 biography "Alexander Hamilton" by Ron Chernow, the musical follows the rise of the "young, scrappy, and hungry" immigrant who is determined to not throw away his shot for a place in the history books. The story chronicles Hamilton's journey and his experiences with such other prominent early American figures as George Washington, James Madison, Hercules Mulligan, the Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Jefferson, and perhaps most significantly, Aaron Burr. Interwoven with the social studies lesson, we also learn about Hamilton's personal life, particularly with the Schuyler sisters (Angelica, Eliza... and Peggy).
The musical is almost completely sung and rapped, and this is where Miranda's mastery is most obvious. As composer/lyricist, Miranda moves the story along while knowing that entertainment must be a factor at the same time. This is a master class in storytelling, and with hip hop, R&B, and even Britpop as well as more traditional showtunes, his mixture of music is as much melting pot as the cast who delivers it. Songs have been purposefully designed to suit each character, from a torch song sung by Eliza Hamilton to the British Invasion (pun intended) sound of King George III. Musical aficionados will also pick up Easter eggs of references to such classic musicals as South Pacific and The Pirates of Penzance.
As a history aficionado, I had concerns about such an unconventional way of telling the story of the Founding Fathers and more specifically Alexander Hamilton. Miranda does make use of dramatic license in retelling the story, but it is impressive to see how much historical detail he packs in while keeping things entertaining. This show has been known from the beginning for casting predominantly non-white actors, and Miranda has stated that his intention was to present "America then, as told by America now," which helps to make the story more accessible and relatable for contemporary audiences. Miranda even has stated that he is open to the idea of women playing the Founding Fathers in future casts.
Director Thomas Kail has successfully carried over all of the strengths of the Broadway production for this touring version. Paul Tazewell's costumes lovingly update the fashions of the 18th century, his frock coats and knee britches assisting greatly in providing a greater sense of historical time and place to the production. Howell Binkley's lighting transforms the single set for each scene, shifting the audience's attention to where it is intended, especially with so many actors on stage and so much movement taking place, thanks to Andy Blankenbuehler's astonishing choreography. Blankenbuehler fills the open space of David Korins's simple yet effective set design fluidly, keeping the pace agile and engrossing. In fact, Blankenbuehler's contribution feels just as integral as the music, lyrics and book.
Edred Utomi does justice to the title role, bringing everything he has to the iconic character who is rarely off stage. Zoe Jenson and Paul Oakley Stovall are stellar as Eliza Hamilton and George Washington, respectively. Jenson's Eliza moved many to tears with her rendition of "Burn," after her character has learned of her husband's affair. And Stovall's performance of Washington's "One Last Time" earned an ovation that would have probably gone on longer had the orchestra not moved on. The role of King George III has always been a welcome comedic turn and here, Peter Matthew Smith milks it for everything it is worth. His song "You'll Be Back" even sparked some in the audience to sing along with the "da da-da, da da's."
I was taken aback by how minor the character of Angelica Schuyler (portrayed at this performance by Cherry Torres) feels in this production. Torres does a wonderful job, and her "Satisfied" is an amazing tour-de-force, but for some reason the character feels less essential than I remembered. Two of the other supporting characters, that of Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson, left me a little less than satisfied. Josh Tower's Aaron Burr and David Park's Thomas Jefferson (Park also plays Marquis de Lafayette in the first act) are entertaining but not as effective as I'd hoped.
Almost every generation has questioned the fate of Broadway (and especially the American musical), which has been nicknamed "the fabulous invalid." Yet, inevitably, a new show seems to come along that not only entertains but also enlightens, sparks conversation, and reawakens the passion that people have for musical theatre. Hamilton is one of those shows. No one might have guessed it, but Hamilton's story has become our story. According to Renée Elise Goldsberry (who won a Tony for her portrayal of Angelica Schuyler), this show is an "opportunity to reclaim history that some of us don't necessarily think is our own." Having been asked, "Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?," audiences may leave asking that very question of ourselves. Up until now, much of our history has been written by a privileged few about a privileged few. May we use this musical as an opportunity to decide within ourselves and our nation what stories we tell going forward.
Hamilton, presented by WRAL Greatest Hits of Broadway, runs through June 5, 2022, at Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St. Durham NC. For tickets and information, please visit www.dpacnc.com, call 919-680-2787, or visit the Ticket Center at DPAC in person. For more information on the tour, visit hamiltonmusical.com/us-tour/home/.
Book, Music and Lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda