BWW Review: Record-shattering HAMILTON Settles Into Multi-Week Run at TPAC With Dazzling Performances and Electrifying Intensity
Lin-Manuel Miranda's epic masterpiece Hamilton - the Broadway behemoth that continues to take the theater world by storm one city at a time, one stage at a time - has settled into its multi-week run at Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center, setting records and drawing capacity crowds with its masterful storytelling, engaging and intriguing score and performances by a thoroughly compelling ensemble of actors who bring their characters to life with tremendous aplomb and thorough commitment. Without a doubt, there's been nothing else quite like Hamilton on the Andrew Jackson Hall stage (or any other stage, truth be told) and the show's unique take on American history has created new generations of theater aficionados and history buffs.
Confounding expectations and setting new standards for theatrical storytelling, Hamilton (based upon Ron Chernow's best-selling biography) is an awe-inspiring, completely elucidating examination of the lives of Alexander Hamilton and his contemporaries and since its debut off-Broadway in 2015 and subsequent transfer to Broadway that same year, it has helped to transform a distinctly American art form with new idioms that will continue to have an impact on musical theater well into the future. Perhaps more importantly - what with all the accompanying hoopla, press coverage and word-of-mouth that Hamilton has garnered over the past several years and continues to generate - audiences yet to experience the phenomenon may rest easy: it is everything you have been told to expect and more. Perhaps never before (as least not in my memory and I've been covering this beat for close to 40 years) has a musical had such an impact on the cultural zeitgeist and left such a sizable footprint on the theatrical landscape (only Tony Kushner's Angels in America comes close) the world over.
And with Hamilton, Miranda, who first made his mark on musical theater with In The Heights (which remains just as vital and important in the cultural lineage of the art form as it has ever been), has laid claim to his own unique placement among the best-known and most revered creators of theater, proving himself the equal of such notables as Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Kern, Rodgers, Hammerstein and Miranda all have created art which has advanced the musical in epoch-shattering ways.
Via the creation of this new art, Miranda has upended traditional ways of musical storytelling with his eye for detail and the extraordinary choices he has made throughout: by casting actors of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, he has challenged Broadway norms and customs, thus throwing open the doors to the theater for audiences who better represent America today. These aren't the actions of an agent provocateur, but rather those of an individual who recognizes the power of good writing. How exhilarating is that? Further, he rejects the repressive and retrograde traits of the theater to prove it welcoming to everyone, however they might identify and wherever upon the spectrum of human expression they are.
Hamilton shines its light brightly on the story of the young, orphaned immigrant who had such a lasting impact on the creation of a new nation, giving audiences a fuller reading of the man than any high school history class has ever done. While Alexander Hamilton's death as the result of a duel with his political adversary and rival Aaron Burr remains an important part of the musical, it is the events that led up to that particular moment that prove to be the most enlightening and devastatingly impactful.
Directed by Thomas Kail and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, Hamilton represents not only a seismic shift in the evolution of the musical itself, but also in the production of a musical, fusing together the myriad creative and aesthetic processes of movement, design and everything else under the sun that results in a look and feel for the show that is as equally astonishing as Manuel's music, lyrics and book. The result? An immersive experience that involves its audiences in ways both expected and new - and it is that which has made the show's impact more widely felt and has contributed to that word-of-mouth mentioned previously.
David Korins' soaring brick walls appear to recreate the New York City of the mid- to late-18th century with graphic intensity that underscores the various themes and ideas expressed in Miranda's exquisitely written script, while Howell Binkley's amazing lighting design illuminates everything - from the scenery and set pieces to the very story being told - with expert precision and extraordinary artistry. Perhaps never before has a show's lighting design proven to be more integral to the show's success than in Hamilton. Likewise, Paul Tazewell's beautiful costumes not only capture the sense of the revolutionary moments that feature so prominently in Hamilton, but help to further delineate who the various personalities of the tale are (and who would have ever thought frock coats, puffy shirts and silk knee breeches could be so surprisingly and alluringly sexy?) and their impact on history. Nevin Steinberg's sound design ensures a total aural experience for audiences, while conductor Roberto Sinha and his orchestra play Miranda's score (which further advances the role of rap and hip-hop as musical theatre idioms, while also featuring lush "showtunes" and ballads that advance the plotline effortlessly and gracefully in the manner of the perceived masters of the art) and featuring musical supervision and orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire, with professionalism and expressive, seemingly barely controlled, passion.
Kail's direction creates a production that moves fluidly and seamlessly, yet never seems hurried. Rather, the play's action seems closest akin to cinema in the way the story unfolds onstage and Kail's deft directorial hand is mesmerizingly unobtrusive. Married with Blankenbuehler's electrifying choreography - virtually every moment seems choreographed with attention to every possible detail imagined - Kail's direction creates a stageworthy otherworld of its own, ensuring that Hamilton exerts its emotional impact without leaving a mark (think of Carousel's Louise Bigelow telling her mother Julie about being slapped, but never feeling its physical manifestation and you'll understand the effect), but yet resounding and reverberating in the heart for ages yet to come.
With his choreography (which exhibits an athletic virility that keeps his ensemble ever in motion), Blankenbuehler creates a new vernacular for musical theater movement that is no less as seminal as Miranda's book, music and lyrics. Every movement is precisely timed and elegantly performed and while the cast is always moving, the result is never jarring or extraneous. In fact, everything seems to happen with great purpose and profound meaning. In short, Blankenbuehler's choreography is stunning.
Kail's company of actors who bring Hamilton to life are uniformly committed to their tasks at hand and compellingly focused on bringing their disparate and intriguing characters to life. Joseph Morales is charming and commanding as Alexander Hamilton, bringing him to the stage with a palpable intensity that makes every moment fairly crackle and pop with a near inexplicable range of his talents. Morales' Hamilton, no matter how awe-inspiring his story is, remains down-to-earth and easy to identify with, no matter one's own heritage and life - but he is also startlingly and justifiably larger than life. Perhaps more notable about Morales' portrayal of Hamilton is his easy, almost imperceptible, personal growth as the fiery young Revolutionary transforms into a statesman instrumental in the creation of the financial system that still defines life in these United States today.
Jared Dixon's Aaron Burr goes toe to toe with Morales' Hamilton throughout the more than two-and-one-half-hours of Miranda's thoughtful musical and his performance is just as compelling and showstopping as that of the title character's. The actor's stage presence is artfully expressed and is essential to the story's ultimate impact on the audience, even if Burr's place in history is diminished by the senseless act that resulted in Hamilton's untimely death.
As Hamilton's beloved wife Eliza, Erin Clemons gives a wonderfully warm and accessible reading of her character, proving herself the equal to Morales and the onstage chemistry of the pair is heartfelt and genuine. Ta'Rea Campbell is superb as Angelica Schuyler, Eliza's sister and Alexander's unrequited love, while Nyla Sostre is delightful as the third Schuyler sister Peggy, but more duplicitious and mysterious as Maria Reynolds, the married woman whose assignations with Hamilton prove more troublesome to the statesman in post-Revolutionary days.
Among the other historic figures represented in Miranda's script, Thomas Jefferson is given his due by the stellar portrayal of Warren Egypt Franklin, who very nearly steals the show out from under Messrs. Morales and Dixon and who doubles as the Marquis de Lafayette (whom we might humbly suggest would make the ideal subject of a musical theater treatment); George Washington is depicted with integrity and a bit of irreverence by Marcus Choi; James Madison is brought to vivid life onstage by Desmond Sean Ellington (who also impresses as Hercules Muligan); and Charles Lee, the ineffectual Revolutionary War general, is ably played by Phil Colgan.
But leave it to Neil Haskell to add oftentimes much-needed, and genuinely appreciated, comic relief as the bumbling, stumbling King George III - who raucously interjects himself into the play's action from time to time - to add context, both historical and comedic, to the proceedings. He's truly a part of the embarrassment of riches to be found among Kail's extraordinarily gifted ensemble of players.
Continuing at TPAC through January 19, Hamilton will continue to add new fans to its clamorous throngs, while adding funds to the TPAC coffers throughout its record-breaking run. If you go - and you certainly should if at all possible, to claim your place among the lucky - be prepared for long lines and crowded facilities (although intermission proved absolutely manageable, whether you were headed to the loo or to the bar) and give yourself time to drink in all the spectacle of Hamilton.
Hamilton. Music, lyrics and book by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Directed by Thomas Kail. Choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler. Musical supervision and orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire. Presented by Broadway at TPAC. At Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall. Through January 19. For details, go to www.tpac.org or call (615) 782-4040. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).