Bryson Bruce & The Company of the National Tour of Hamilton. Photo © Joan Marcus.
Book, music & lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Inspired by the book “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow
Choreography by Andy Blankenbeuhler
Directed by Thomas Kail
Review by Keith Waits.
Entire contents are copyright © 2019 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Hamilton is a show whose impact extended well beyond the Great White Way and into the larger culture almost immediately; you have to have literally lived under a rock to have escaped awareness of this revisionist take on early United States history. In 2016, Hamilton received a record-setting 16 Tony nominations, won 11, including Best Musical, and was also the recipient of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
So the national tour arrives in Louisville with the highest expectations, and it pretty much meets them all. A musical about the Founding Fathers told through a melange of popular styles: rap, hip hop, soul, and ballads that tie the show to traditional show tune format, performed by a color-conscious cast portraying the characters with a contemporary sensibility, and created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, now a bona fide multi-hyphenate superstar.
Miranda used Alexander Hamilton’s long-overlooked immigrant identity to reinvigorate the musical, developing the complex narrative through dense lyrics packed with detail and characterization. From what I gather, the history is sound, but the edgy voice he gives his characters lends a relevancy, instead of the distance of powdered wigs and uptight Caucasians.
This approach also emphasizes the universal aspect of Hamilton’s journey; an immigrant landing on North American shores whose rise is because he is brilliant, works hard, and makes an important association with George Washington (Paul Oakley Stovall), serving as his aide in the Continental Army and later serving in his cabinet when he becomes the first U.S. President.
He is otherwise unpopular with the Founding Fathers – James Madison (Chaundre Hall-Broomfield) and Thomas Jefferson (Bryson Bruce) seem to especially dislike him, and his friendship with Aaron Burr (Josh Tower) deteriorates over time. He wins the hand of Eliza (Hannah Cruz), starts a family, helps draft the U.S. Constitution and writse 51 of the 89 essays that comprise the Federalist Papers.
Very few shows have this level of energy, and little of it ever comes off as empty or flash for the sake of flash. Even the boisterous introduction of the outrageous Thomas Jefferson – “What’d I Miss?”, an undeniable high point of the evening, is founded in our understanding of the character’s sense of style and reputation as a ladies man.
But the show MOVES like few others. Andy Blankenbeuhler’s choreography exemplifies the fresh, innovative aesthetic of Hamilton, keeping the dancer’s center of gravity low, matching the funky, beat-driven score. The brilliant lighting (Howel Binkley) follows the pulsing action until it suddenly stops it in its tracks. The setting (David Korins) provides rich texture, sufficient levels and segments, and an impressive moving staircase, but most of the signature action features a turntable in an open space.
The ensemble, beautifully clothed by Paul Tazewell, activate that space with excitement. The story is largely structured around a series of repeated motifs, debates staged as rap battles and duels over misguided honor. Mr. Bruce’s eager-to-please performance as Jefferson nearly steals the show, but Edred Utomi is a fierce Hamilton, Hannah Cruz a dedicated and stalwart Eliza, Paul Oakley Stovall a formidable George Washington, and Josh Tower a conflicted Aaron Burr with enough nuance to avoid any cliched villainy. And Peter Matthew Smith is the whitest White Man imaginable and a riot as the bitter but supercilious King George. And every other name in the ensemble executes their task with every bit of the talent and style witnessed in the principals.
Still, if I need to find fault, even with the anxious pace, you feel the length of the evening about halfway through Act Two. It is possible that the density of the narrative contributes to slight fatigue; that the experience of being in a Hamilton audience requires stamina not for being an endurance test, but for being so demanding. The cheeky intelligence and idiosyncratic attitude refuse to let you relax.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s achievement is rich and layered. As new as it feels, it is well grounded in tradition and homage to forebears such as 1776, Les Miserables, Spring Awakening, and so many others. Miranda has absorbed musical theatre like a sponge and allowed all of those lessons to flow easily into his creation.
History records the title character’s fate, so Miranda works to make the moment loom large as the climax, and it works brilliantly as an example of how stagecraft can amplify meaning, but what is most important about Hamilton is encapsulated in the final number, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” Why a show becomes a phenomenon lies in how it captures a moment in history and enters the zeitgeist. But that moment is not in the life of Alexander Hamilton, but in the fact that America in 2015 was suffering an identity crisis in the wake of generations of history studied with blinders. That crisis has deepened since then, which has only made Hamilton more imperative. It has taken a position in our lives that joins reverence for history with a newly born civil rights movement.
June 4 –23, 2019
PNC Broadway in Louisville
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY, 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, where he is Managing Editor of their Artebella blog, and host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com. But spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.