BWW Review: HAMILTON at Des Moines Civic Center
Photo caption: Local T-Shirt shop Raygun joined in the Hamilton fun.
You Don't Win 11 Tony Awards by being Less Astute
If you live in the Des Moines area and not under a rock, chances are you know that Hamilton is playing at the Des Moines Civic Center. The critically-acclaimed hip-hop musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda about the "Ten Dollar Founding Father" is here from June 27-July 15. Des Moines was chosen to host the touring company while the show is still pretty hot, so of course the performances were amazing. With Hamilton still such a ubiquitous part of the current musical theater conversation, I feel like writing about the show is redundant. Yes, Hamilton is fabulous. That goes without saying. It wouldn't be making such a stir if it wasn't. So my review of the actual performance is going to be short. My main focus is going to be on the local hype.
Come of Age With Our Young Nation
The hype began for me in 2009 when I heard about this "White House Poetry Jam." I remember expecting comedy like the misguided audience members who laughed along with Lin-Manuel Miranda's performance. After that, I started hearing about it more and more. It debuted on Broadway. Won 11 Tony awards. Everything that could be remotely related to Hamilton, including the Federal Reserve Museum in Chicago, had some sort of tie-in.
Then the kids started getting into it. You know something is a big deal when your teenage daughter thinks it's cool. I'm certain the nationwide aggregate score on the AP US History exam improved. Powered by its HUGE online presence, Hamilton became as common for kids to know by heart as the latest radio hits.
One day I came into my daughter's room because I heard her crying. Did her crush move away? Nope! She discovered the tragic story of Hamilton!
Des Moines, the Greatest City In The World, We Are Willing To Wait For It
Des Moines has gotten a great deal of publicity in recent years. It has developed a reputation for being a great place to live with plenty of opportunities. I think the people who write those things only visit in the summer, but I digress. Ever since the Today Show named us the "wealthiest city in America" in 2014, the accolades keep coming. I love my hometown as much as the next guy, but people from Iowa still have a complex about being perceived as out-of-touch hicks who never leave the farm. So when it was announced that the show was coming here, it was a big story. If we have Hamilton, it must be true! We really are cool!
The hype began about two years in advance. The kids were so excited. At first, only season ticket holders could get seats. When my daughter was invited to take the place of a rap-averse season ticket holder grandma of a friend, she was elated! This was in late 2016. Later, when I asked the mom more about it she said, "um, I'm embarrassed but I didn't realize it is in 2018." We all had a good laugh. We were willing to wait for it.
When tickets went on sale to the general public, people camped out on the Civic Center steps and waited in long lines. To buy tickets online, you had to log in at a certain time in the morning and wait in an online queue until your user name's turn. Several of my friends were dropped off the queue or otherwise lost their position, and by the time they went to the back of the virtual line and waited again, the show was sold out. I had the forethought to use multiple devices, so when I was booted off of one, the other still worked. After hours of refreshing my screen, when it came to my turn there were only single tickets left, and only in the expensive section. I took the plunge and bought tickets for my whole family. My daughter would get to see it twice!
No less than 30 of my Facebook friends are attending. Everyone I ask has heard about the show: my physical therapist, my client who likes monster trucks, my co-worker's elderly mother... everyone! Hamilton has taken over Des Moines!
In the Eye of a Hurricane
Iowa doesn't have hurricanes, but on the night my daughter attended her first Hamilton performance, there was a flood! In the span of time from when we took this picture before they left to the curtain call, we got ten inches of rain! They were stranded at the theater, and their ride could not get to them due to roads being closed. Luckily, her friend's family arranged for relatives who live close to downtown to pick them up, and they waited at their house until the roads were open again. It was a long night. It was as if the world turned upside down!
The Story of Tonight
Finally, after two years of hype, the night was finally here. We dress up, I make dinner reservations, there are no floods or hurricanes, and I even remember to bring my approved beverage cup. It is a perfect night, even though one of my teenage daughters refused to go but that's another story. It's ok, my other daughter found a sorority sister to replace her.
The Des Moines Civic Center is vigilant about enforcing the no photos policy during the show. I was literally pounced upon by an usher at the Leslie Odom Jr. concert in May, and later chastised by my beloved high school theater/English teacher for posting a short video on Facebook (he is now retired and volunteers as an usher). Ok, ok, I learned my lesson. This is the ONLY PHOTO I took of the show, before curtain.
The brick walls give it some texture, and the performers climb around a little, which gives it some depth. It has a turntable like the original Les Miz. Otherwise it is minimalist set with no scene changes. There is enough going on you really don't need anything more.
The show begins quietly, telling Hamilton's backstory. I was already crying within the first minute and a half. There is a lot to cover so they move fast. So much happens in the first act; revolution, romance, duels, death, victory, the federalist papers... sounds a lot like 11th grade... I was surprised when intermission came that it was already time.
The second half has one tragedy after another, I won't write any spoilers, but you probably know that Aaron Burr is not portrayed as a hero. The show as a whole was captivating. The music is lush. The lyrics are complex. I was emotionally drained by the end. I loved it.
5 Duel Commandments
I'm not going to give you the Hamilton Ten Commandments, but I am going to share some tips on how to be prepared.
1. Get used to rap.
Yes, there is rap, which some people don't like. But not so much of it that it would annoy this middle aged, suburban lady (see kids, I'm super woke!). Just listen to "You Gotta Fight For Your Right To Party," "Parents Just Don't Understand," and the rap version of "Walk This Way" and you will remember that you liked rap once upon a time.
2. Brush up on your history.
The words do go by very quickly and tell an intricate story, so it is best if you are prepared. I mostly slept through AP US History (sorry Mr. B), so I needed to spend some time on Wikipedia.
3. Listen to the show ahead of time
It's easy to find on Soundcloud or YouTube. You will miss a lot of details if you don't already know what's going on.
4. If you are a cry-er, be ready. Get a hanky.
5. Suspend your disbelief
Hamilton is known to be cast with performers of color portraying historical people who were white. Don't let this confuse or distract you. We don't insist that actors have the same hair color as their true-story characters, why should skin color be any different? The set and costumes are minimalist, so don't focus on how a lot of people seem to be in their underwear. Suspend your disbelief and enjoy.
When your city gets a chance to host a touring company, or if you are able travel, believe the hype and go see Hamilton. You'll be glad you did!