BWW Review: Hippodrome Hosts HAMILTON
Unless you've been living under a (Plymouth?) rock, chances are you are acquainted with the Tony Award winning Broadway phenomenon known as "HAMILTON," the innovative, ground-breaking musical written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Miranda masterfully blends hip hop, blues, jazz, and R&B in telling the tale of one of our nation's most intriguing founding fathers, George Washington's "right hand man," first Secretary of the Treasury and loser of one of the world's most infamous duels, Alexander Hamilton.
Perhaps what's most intriguing about the play, now at Baltimore's Hippodrome theatre, is its subject matter. There's nary a singing teapot, king lion, web-slinging superhero, or green witch to be found. It's not often one encounters a Broadway musical, one of the most successful in the history of the Great White Way in fact, based on a non-fiction biography by a historian (in this case, Pulitzer Prize winning author and journalist, Ron Chernow).
Then again, there is precedent of a sort--the Tony Award winning Broadway musical, Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone's "1776," addressed similar subject matter, nearly 50 years ago. But it's clear HAMILTON is in a class by itself...
...and himself, as actor Edred Utomi makes clear from his first to his last appearance on stage, a man determined to "take his shot" at life, rising from meager beginnings to become one of the architects of our nation. Given the musical's rap-and-hip-hop foundation, there is an urbane-and-urban brashness about the characters, a kind of modern, pop-age spin on the standard larger-than-life perception of our nation's founders. It feels right, for today, though patrons expecting strict historical accuracy will be disappointed.
But hey, it's a musical, chances are James Madison and Thomas Jefferson didn't walk the streets of 18th century New York bursting into song. Then again, few in the cast sing in the Rodgers and Hammerstein sense-they rap, and quite a lot of it.
According to Leah Libresco with the fivethirtyeight.com website, Miranda's nearly 3-hour work is more than 20,000 words in length, 3 to 5X more than most musicals. It's admittedly a challenge for the ear; my theatrical companion for the evening, fellow BWW reviewer (and my wife) Tina Collins, wondered if the play would benefit from captioning; Miranda's work is a Cirque du Soleil of words--to read this work prior to seeing it performed would only heighten one's appreciation of what is clearly a Herculean effort...appropriate, as the character of Hamilton is often described as writing "like one running out of time," as if putting pen to paper were "going out of style."
Utomi's performance is energetic, enthusiastic, he hits his marks, but the actor never seems to totally "own" Hamilton-it's a performance that feels studied, lacking true fire. In other words, he plays Hamilton, but never BECOMES him. Hamilton's frenemy, the supposed Salieri to his Mozart, Aaron Burr, on the other hand, is in many ways the more intriguing character, and actor Josh Tower inhabits the role. Tower's Burr seems more multi-layered than the singular-shot-oriented Hamilton. Hamilton speaks of wearing his mind and heart on his sleeve, while Burr plays it "close to the chest," leaving the audience wondering what is really going on in the mind of the man born of a preacher father and a "genius" mother. Like Hamilton, Burr is also an orphan, and one senses there's an internal battle underway between what he wants (to be in "The Room Where It Happens" where national policy is made) and what he loves ("Dear Theodosia").
This ensemble cast is expert in voice, dance, and their ownership of the stage-with the various trellises, ladders, and bridges, everyone seems to be constantly climbing, ascending, descending, reflective of the incredible activity HAMILTON attempts to cover in just a few hours-the advent of revolution, the war with Great Britain, the election of 1800, and a mass of political intrigues, imbroglios, and even a sex scandal along the way...all signs things haven't changed that much in America over the many decades.
If one actor steals the show, it's Peter Matthew Smith's King George. Resplendent in his royal garments, sparkling crown and scepter, this King George isn't crazy (not yet), and performs three songs ("You'll Be Back," "What Comes Next" and "I Know Him") as he muses on his ungrateful subjects and his insider's take on the ravages of governance. Smith steps spritely with a dainty gait, he's the monarch you love to hate.
HAMILTON continues its run at the Hippodrome Theatre at 12 N. Eutaw Street through July 21st. A limited number of tickets will be available at the box office, open weekdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For information on HAMILTON, visit www.HamiltonMusical.com.