David Mirvish & The Public Theatre/Hamilton, book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, originally directed by Thomas Kail, Princess of Wales Theatre, Feb. 22 to Aug. 20. Tickets here.
This is my second go-round with Hamilton, and I did come away with a new take on this revolutionary musical (pardon the pun), but I’ll get to that later. Suffice it to say that there is both good and bad news about this touring production that’s going to be around for a while. In fact, ten more weeks have just been added to the run.
Regardless of what one thinks about the relative merits of Hamilton, which premiered in 2015, it can’t be denied that it is a towering achievement. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the book, music and lyrics, making this musical virtually a one-man show. He also played the lead in the original Broadway run. Uber-talented doesn’t begin to describe his many talents.
Hamilton is also a daring show in terms of delivery. The musical has attracted legions of fanatical young fans because its main modus operandi is rap. Yes there are breaks in the rap for songs written in a myriad of styles from swing to blues and beyond, but Hamilton, for all intents and purposes, is a rap musical.
Then, there is the subject matter. Alexander Hamilton (1755/57-1804) is one of the founding fathers of the new United States. As well as being George Washington’s secretary during the Revolutionary War, he was also the first American president’s Secretary of the Treasury. In that capacity, he established the American financial system that exists today, among other things.
To create a rap musical around this historical figure is not only brave, it is also bizarre, but Hamilton’s life story is compelling, particularly his death in a duel with the then vice-president, Aaron Burr. That Miranda manages to cram in so many aspects of Hamilton’s history into this admittedly overlong musical, is another great accomplishment of this runaway Broadway hit.
If rap is your idiom, however, you better have great enunciation, and this is where the cast falters. During intermission, many people around me were saying that they couldn’t make out many of the words. The great tragedy is that Miranda’s lyrics are really, really clever, particularly his rhymes, and it’s sad to miss out on them.
Thanks goodness for Donald Webber, Jr. (Aaron Burr) and Manual Stark Santos (King George) who were the only ones who were crystal clear. The worst was Darnell Abraham (George Washington) whose delivery was impenetrable, with Paris Nix (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson), and the lead women, Morgan Anita Wood (Eliza Hamilton) and Marja Harmon (Angelica Schuyler), running a close second. Everyone else was at various degrees of understanding.
At times, it was like watching a foreign film, or else you gleaned onto the story by picking up threads of words. This is just sloppy direction, but it marred what could have been strong performances.
Speaking of performances, it stands to reason that the singing/actor playing Alexander Hamilton should be the most dynamic person on the stage, but alas, Deaundre Woods was short in the charisma department. It was a surprising casting choice, although he did redeem himself in the later, more poignant moments of the show.
Now, the first time I saw Hamilton, I was quite removed from the emotional content of the story. This time, however, in the latter part of Act Two, from the death of Hamilton’s son, to his own death, the musical became a different beast, and I was drawn into its profound pathos. Up until then, it was Miranda being very clever with lyrics, but now it was like a different vehicle entirely as the action jumped off the stage. At that point, for me, Hamilton reached greatness.
From a visual point of view, David Korins’ period costumes for the leads read true. The ensemble, who also play smaller roles, wears 18th century underwear as a baseline (bustiers and leggings), so coats and dresses can be cleverly thrown over when they have to be a character. Nevin Steinberg’s rough-hewn set is filled with wooden scaffolding which recreates a pioneer past, while the revolving stage is also used to very good effect.
I still think, as I did the first time through, that the production is over-choreographed. Original dancesmith Andy Blankenbuehler has thrown in the dance ensemble at every possible opportunity to make for a very busy production. As well, a great deal of the movement is conceptual, so seems removed from what people are actually talking/singing about.
Hamilton debuted in 2015, so we are a long way from that premiere, and eight years is a lifetime in terms of a show’s freshness. Long gone are the original creators, and Hamilton is now overseen by a supervising director, resident director, two supervising choreographers and a dance supervisor. Nonetheless, the new generation of players does perform with enthusiasm, and these managers do hold Hamilton as true to the original as possible.
If only we could hear the words.
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