By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
New Orleans is finally in the room where it happens. The groundbreaking work of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton: An American Musical, currently on its second national tour at the historic Saenger Theater, offers theatre lovers an opportunity to expand their minds and break free from the past in much the same way that the 13 Colonies broke free from the yoke of British imperialism.
That said, there are some in the birthplace of jazz and the home of funk and bounce music who are resistant to its charms. Hamilton is not the first musical to incorporate rap and hip hop music successfully into contemporary musical theatre. The show that made the greatest inroads in that area was Miranda’s previous Tony winner, In the Heights, which bowed in 2008 and ran until early 2011. In many ways, that was an homage to his native New York and to the music of Hispanic America.
Hamilton, however, is a multi-layered love letter to America and all that it stands for. It acknowledges the need of its residents to seek liberty and to find opportunity in the New World. Alexander Hamilton is offered as the archetypal immigrant who comes to America’s shores and establishes himself as an important thinker and leader, instrumental in winning its independence and later is seen as one of the most important of the founding fathers.
Ron Chernow researched the historical figure in his book “Alexander Hamilton,” which eloquently spoke of his being a champion for a strong centralized government and documented both his establishment of the National Bank and the Coast Guard during the early years of the nation’s formation. It was Chernow’s book that first caught the attention of Miranda and exposed him to his incredible legacy.
But being a member of an under-represented minority, Miranda brilliantly takes Hamilton and the other white figures of history and casts them as minorities so that the backdrop of American independence and the early years of its foundation are seen through a modern lens and as a musical metaphor of the possibilities for all of its indigenous people. (This was the reason the full title emphasizes the word “American.”)
The careful and largely respectful representations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, the Marquis de Lafayette and Aaron Burr as people of color are used to connect to the America of today and the medium of its music is the conduit through which they come alive.
Miranda’s book and music are enormously enhanced by the extraordinary choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler, who was part of the original team of Miranda, director Thomas Kail and music orchestrator Alex Lacamoire that first produced In the Heights. The songs, movement and orchestrations flow seamlessly from one scene into another and results in tension, power and snap to the stage performances.
In the titular role, Joseph Morales has the task of channeling earlier renditions by Miranda, Javier Muñoz and others. His small frame is historically correct – Hamilton was only 5 feet, seven inches – and he brings a youthful energy and exuberance to the role. Each person who portrays Hamilton brings their own permutations to the challenging role. Hamilton is on stage for most of the entire running time of the musical, so he must act and react constantly to all the other players.
Nik Walker as Aaron Burr is quite comfortable in the role. His rendition of “The Room Where It Happens” was deliciously delivered. In many ways Burr is the pivotal figure in the book, seen as the man who is denied fame and power due to Hamilton’s conniving his way to the top. This was clearly the reason why Leslie Odom, Jr. – and not Miranda – won a Tony for his portrayal in the original cast as “the damned fool that shot him.” Walker’s strong voice is one of the best features in a very talented cast.
Erin Clemons as Eliza Hamilton has her major moment alone on the stage with “Burn,” where she literally removes the evidence of her love with her husband. Ta’Rea Campbell as her sister Angelica Schuyler possesses the vocal chops to carry off her frenetic singing in “The Schuyler Sisters” and “Satisfied.”
As the only other featured female player, Nyla Sostre plays the largely forgettable role of Peggy Schuyler in Act One and the sultry and sexy role of Maria Reynolds for whom Hamilton falls from grace. If there were one major fault with “Hamilton,” it’s that there is not more opportunity to hear from the distaff players for they are all possessing charming and powerful voices
Fergie Phillipe as Hercules Mulligan in Act One and James Madison in Act Two and Elijah Malcomb as John Laurens in Act One and Philip Hamilton in Act Two both add to Morales’ and Walker’s performances. But Kyle Scatliffe, who had the daunting task of playing the Marquis de Lafayette in Act One and Thomas Jefferson in Act Two handles Lafayette much better in “Yorktown” than as Jefferson in the second act opener “What’d I Miss?” Even the most experienced of rappers are challenged by the rapidity of the lyrics in these songs, which require prowess and stamina while executing tricky dance moves.
One slight misstep in casting was the lack of a towering physical presence with Marcus Choi, whose small stature seems in direct contradiction to his assuming the role of George Washington, a man who was extremely tall by standards of his day at six feet, two inches. While Choi might have been better cast as Napoleon, his singing more than meets the size of the character he portrays. (Christopher Jackson’s imposing original portrayal still resonates for those who saw him.)
Perhaps looking to win audience approval, Jon Patrick Walker’s performance as King George was a bit too sacharine, although the character is deliberately written as playful. In the original cast, Jonathan Groff’s mugging the audience possessed an almost impish delight, but his predecessor on stage at the world premiere at the Public Theatre, Brian D’Arcy James, tended to be more expressive. On this tour, Walker goes for more of a visceral performance and, while it does generate laughs, it seems to be just a bit over the top than necessary. Think: more Jack Benny and less Robin Williams.
Tony Award-winning costumes by Paul Tazewell are all amazing. Indeed, many of the heavy coats for the men and the ruffled skirts for the women, add literal layers of difficulty in being able to carry off their roles. The lighting design by Howell Binkley won him his second Tony Award in a decade and it is beautifully rendered in the spacious Saenger Theater.
Had the Tony Awards Committee not killed the Sound Design category in 2014, Nevin Steinberg might also have had a Tony Award to show for his outstanding work that punctuates the vocal performances and enhances the production immeasurably.
Associate and supervising choreographer Stephanie Klemons is charged with making certain that Blankenbuehler’s original choreography remains intact and is replicated with each new production of “Hamilton.” She had worked with the Off-Broadway, Broadway, Chicago and San Francisco resident companies prior to the launching of the first and, now, second touring companies. The newest “Hamilton” location resides in the West End of London. If Blankenbuehler created the flame for “Hamilton,” it is Klemons who carries its torch from production to production and from dance captain to dance captain.
Despite what some may classify as hype, New Orleans audiences have been given an amazing opportunity to see a show that is nothing short of transformative and well before much of the rest of the country. It would be as wrong to say that “Hamilton” is strictly a “rap musical” as it would be say that “Hair” is only about drugs and sex or that “Rent” is only about modern-day squatters. Each of those musicals advanced musical theatre in ways the public eventually came to appreciate, although there were striking controversies associated with them at the start.
Miranda is a student of music and musical theatre specifically. To those that read the book and pore over the lyrics, he clearly drops references – or as gamers refer to them “Easter eggs” – to other important musicals that have preceded Hamilton, most especially Les Miserablés.
As the final chords in the haunting refrain of “Time” are heard and drift into the darkness of the Saenger Theatre, we should all consider Eliza Hamilton’s character as she and the chorus recount “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” This is an old story told very well, but accomplished through modern conveyances of music and dance. Hamilton has had some problems in being fully accepted as a game changer, but even its detractors have come to respect that it is more than a leveraged gimmick.
Hamilton should stand the test of time and join the pantheon of important musicals like Showboat, Oklahoma, Hair, Les Miserablés and Rent. But how it is finally recognized will be determined more by theatre lovers than by historians. It was history, after all, that got this whole thing rolling.
Hamilton: An American Musical, continues on its national tour at the Saenger Theater, 1111 Canal Street in New Orleans through March 31. Show times vary with 7:30 starts on Tuesday through Thursday nights and 8:00 shows on Friday and Saturday nights. Saturday matinees are at 2:00 p.m., while Sunday matinees are at 1:00 p.m. For tickets call 504-525-1052 or click here.