Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

SHN Orpheum Theatre
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's review of Hello, Dolly!

Rubén Carbajal, Julius Thomas III, Simon Longnight,
Brandon Louis Armstrong, and Cast

Photo by Joan Marcus
I've said it before, and I'm not changing my story. I think the best way to describe Hamilton, the mega-hit musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda that has returned to San Francisco for an open-ended run at the SHN Orpheum Theatre, is as a mash-up between "Schoolhouse Rock" and 8 Mile. "Schoolhouse Rock," for those young enough to have missed it (or old enough to have been outside its target age group when it was in its heyday in the 1970s and '80s), was a series of short films that used music and animation to present concepts of math, grammar, civics and more (Broadway composer Lynn Ahrens contributed some of the songs). 8 Mile is the somewhat-disguised story of rapper Eminem's early days in Detroit, scrapping to make his way in the burgeoning world of hip-hop music, culminating in an epic rap battle.

Despite that being, in my humble opinion, an elegantly apt summation of the show, it sadly doesn't even begin to communicate the thrilling nature of this theatrical phenomenon that has captivated audiences since its sold-out run at New York's Public Theater—and at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, and here at the Orpheum in 2017, and every other theater where it has played. This story of founding father Alexander Hamilton brings the passionate street sensibility of hip-hop to a historically accurate portrayal of Hamilton's life and contributions with a vibrancy and verve that has resonated with audiences in a way that no other musical in memory has.

I first became acquainted with Hamilton when I watched the YouTube video of Lin-Manuel Miranda's performance of what would go on to become the opening number of the show (at the time, Miranda was planning it as a concept album, not a full musical), "Alexander Hamilton," at a White House poetry slam in 2009. I followed the progress of the project and was able to see the show soon after it opened on Broadway. This production (save for a somewhat disappointing performance by Rick Negron as King George) is every bit as electrifying as what I saw in 2015.

Hamilton is a theatrical experience unlike any other. History can all too often be perceived as a collection of important dates and significant events, but it takes a skilled storyteller to tease out the threads of historical moments and weave them into something that gives us both a valuable perspective on the events of the past and an illustration of their relevance to contemporary experience. (There is a moment in act two when Thomas Jefferson delivers the line "We can change that. You know why? Because I'm the president!" and the audience gasps in the recognition of how executive privilege can easily be abused.) Miranda is just such a storyteller, condensing Ron Chernow's 818-page biography of the United States' first Secretary of the Treasury into an almost three-hour, two-act explosion of energy, humor, insight and revelation. Perhaps most impressive is how he encapsulates the highlights of Hamilton's life in just the four minutes of the show's opening number.

The performers who have been assembled here seem to have absorbed the energy and dynamism of Miranda's work into their DNA. No one is less than fully engaged from the first syllable until the last note fades out. (Though with the thunderous ovation the performance received on opening night, that fade-out is moot.) In the early days of the show, some wags felt compelled to comment on the non-traditional casting, with actors of color portraying historical figures who were, for the most part, white. But that misses the point. Hamilton tells the story of the founding of a country based on a radical (at the time) idea: that all are equal and deserve a chance to contribute to the life of a society as a whole. By having a multi-racial cast, the show reminds us of what America is rapidly becoming—a "majority-minority" nation. (Whether we will ever achieve that dream of true equality of opportunity and justice under the law is, unfortunately, still to be determined.)

Technically, the show is wondrous. David Korins' set is massive: huge beams framing a giant space (perhaps even larger than the show's current home on Broadway), with a second level walkway, moveable stairs, and a large turntable stage. The lighting grid created by Howell Binkley comprises a huge number of instruments and he uses them all to create gorgeous, energetic, intimate tableaux, focusing our attention precisely where it needs to be at every moment. Paul Tazewell's costumes deserve praise not only for their period elegance and tailoring, but also for the fact that they allow the freedom of movement the performers need to dance Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography, which is contemporary without being experimental. Whether you are focused on a single performer or the ensemble as a whole, there's always something compelling and beautiful to look at. It's some of the most galvanizing movement I've seen on stage.

I suppose if you absolutely hate hip-hop rhythms and lyrical patterns, you could find a reason not to love Hamilton. But if you love hip-hop, you'll hear references to famed rap and hip-hop performers from Grandmaster Flash to Eminem. And if you love musicals, you will hear references to South Pacific, The Pirates of Penzance, and 1776, among others.

I'm also guessing you're really going to love this one, too.

Hamilton is playing in an open run at SHN's Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $111 - $686, and are available by calling the box office at 888-746-1799 or by visiting

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