Hamilton. Photo by Joan Marcus
It’s difficult to blame anyone for being skeptical about the highly hyped and praised Broadway musical, Hamilton. We’ve been duped by big award winners quite a bit in recent years. However, the national tour now on stage at the Orpheum Theatre actually lives up to all the hoopla. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster ingeniously combines various music genres from rap, hip hop, R&B, to Broadway classic standard, to at times what resonates of Ed Sheeran, Beyoncé, and Destiny’s Child. The life of Alexander Hamilton is panoramically theatricalized in a way that honors his story and speaks to the popular aesthetic tastes of our time. This is a musical for our time. This is the man who was, as a one of the many terrific tunes is titled, a Right Hand Man to Gen. George Washington in the Continental Army, as well as the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and co-writer of the Federalist Papers. Even if you know little or nothing about the man or the time, it doesn’t matter. You’ll see how he looms as one of the emblematic figures of the American Revolution.
Theatergoers who have gone to the Guthrie Theater since Joseph Haj took the artistic leadership reins there three years ago will notice the similarity with the Big G’s recent productions in which colorblind casting is applied to major plays of the Western Canon, so that a character written with a white person in mind is cast by someone non-white, but nonetheless in integrity to the way the character was originally written. This is the approach that Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda harmonizes with in a way that is not merely an agitprop gimmick, but brilliantly inspired. The characters are played virtually all by actors of color. Of course, the actual historical personages were white.
For decades we’ve been hectored about the Founding Fathers as irrelevant dead white men. And though Alexander Hamilton has long been believed to have been of mixed race (which comes through this musical), he is still part of the baseline patriarchy at our nation’s inception. Had these men not done what they did, the rule of absolute monarchy would have continued. A distinction that Miranda gets on a gut level is that Hamilton was clearly opposed to the American Revolution being taken off course by the extremism of the French Revolution which was brewing well before it officially erupted in 1789. France’s Reign of Terror was never emulated in this country in order to install a regime. This is worth noting because the Marxist movements of the next century and the progressive movements of the 20th century, which live very much in the spirit of the French, don’t align copasetically with the economic and political system which Hamilton was seminal in conceiving. Bear this in mind when you witness the electrifying Battle of Yorktown number where the Americans and the French decisively beat the Brits. This was the high point of the relationship between the two allied countries.
Miranda is honest about Hamilton’s firm isolationist view, which is refreshing in a time when so many seem to want to impose an ideological agenda imprint on historical situations for which it actually doesn’t apply. This is a chronic problem in the theater and the cinema. Miranda keeps the American Revolution, American. This may surprise some who have heard talk about Hamilton being some kind of leftist re-writing, but it’s not. Nor is it by any means a reactionary work. It is a work of integrity and a profoundly American musical that appeals miraculously across the ideological spectrum, taking its place alongside such American classics as Oklahoma! and The Music Man. In its own remarkably innovative way, Hamilton is as American as Apple Pie.
The title role played by Joseph Morales is soldierly on one hand, and on the other, cuts like a gritty contemporary image. You feel like you could come across the guy on the bus or at the hardware store pricing tools for home improvement. Morales is a man of smaller stature, but like Tom Cruise or James Cagney, he’s a lion cub that you can’t resist. It’s hard not to love him as the character who often impetuously steps into it, albeit with good intentions (mostly) and when not so good, Morales always impels us to see Hamilton’s humanity. So we root for him nonetheless, like a flawed but special buddy we’re fond of. Morales’s size and feisty vibrancy accentuate the character’s underdog status subliminally and the tune My Shot captures that with visceral focus.
Similar traits can be said of the crackerjack Marcus Choi’s George Washington, conceived credibly as not just a mentor, but a surrogate father figure of the out-of-wedlock-born Hamilton. The chemistry between the two actors is palpable as Choi brings a contrasting gravity that emanates mature insight. He evokes the quality of a man who would have your back in perilous circumstances. We understand how Washington has been dubbed the father of his country. Again, Hamilton is a musical that respects the forefathers.
That said, there is commentary with tongue in cheek. As there should be! We’ve all been reminded at length that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and that the mixed-race Sally Hemings fathered five children by him. Hamilton does not delve into this but actor of color, Kyle Scatliffe, brings sparkling mischief to the role that nicely underscores the tension between the two men’s personalities and political differences. Those differences are grounded in both in how they play the dirty game of politics, as well as political philosophies. One can’t expect for any musical, play or film to embody the complexity of any historical figure, event, or period, but Hamilton definitely creates curiosity in the viewer to look beyond the panorama to learn more about him, his time, and his place in the creation of the Republic.
Of course, it was Aaron Burr who was Hamilton’s nemesis and Miranda has drawn the division between the two with arresting mutual animosity marked by jagged emotional peaks and valleys throughout. The much taller Nik Walker is a sleek, agile, and formidable presence with a splendid voice as showcased in his powerful rendition of Wait For It. At this point we see Burr facing up to how his inhibitions keep him from living authentically.
All this macho interplay is captivating and edifying, but a musical must have romance, and the element of eros. This element shines through in an intoxicating love triangle between Hamilton, his wife Eliza, and her sister Angelica Schuyler. Shoba Narayan’s rendition of Burn is devastatingly delicate as she sings of the humiliation she endures. A mini masterpiece of understatement in and of itself.
Ta’Rea Campbell’s dynamic Angelica perfectly contrasts Narayan. This demonstrates how Hamilton’s need for various women was a debilitating undercurrent in his life. His libido, a tentacle of his impetuous personality, also leads him astray in another section of the musical. However, Miranda doesn’t let us sit in easy judgement as we consider that a person’s private life is not necessarily an indicator of how his or her public life should be assessed. On the other hand, what about the emotional wreckage that comes out of this? Miranda doesn’t shortchange this concern either. Exquisite balance indeed.
Hamilton pumps the madcap through the narcissistic King George, more a legend in his own mind than a monarchic buffoon who no longer commands the respect his colonial subjects. An uproarious Jon Patrick Walker plays the role as the petty tyrant (big emphasis on petty) that the man surely was. His delicious take on the tune, You’ll Be Back, is reminiscent of Broadway legend Stephen Schwarz and has the feel of that pompous phrase “you’ll never work in this town again!” Scenery-chewing Walker gives us a man we love to hate.
The eclectic musical genres that Miranda alchemizes are served with boundless imagination by choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. The multiple styles are organically translated into the actors’ dance and other bodily movements—funky kineticism to fluid physical lyricism. Those who’ve not seen Hamilton because they think that the hip hop and rap elements are not their cup of tea should really reconsider their resistance. It’s much, much more than that. Moreover, the rap and hip hop segments have a unique way of moving and launching certain moments of the fascinating plot line. Though the opening section does in fact rattle off background exposition far too rapidly, it doesn’t disrupt the beguiling epic journey. You’ll get in the groove very quickly in spite of that. Not to be missed.
Thorugh Oct. 7
Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis