BWW Review: HAMILTON National Tour Brings Non-Stop Energy to the Marcus Center
A sign hung in the box office window as we shuffled through Marcus Center security lines on Wednesday night, ready to witness the phenomenon that is Hamilton. "Sold Out," said the sign. We sit on the cusp of 2020, as live theaters near and far struggle to pack seats with patrons of younger, more diverse demographics -- yet on this Wednesday night in Milwaukee, the Marcus Center is sold out.
That doesn't happen without a whole lot of hype. Without putting a show on a pedestal and handing its creators 11 Tony Awards in 2016 and a Pulitzer Prize. Hamilton, the hip-hop musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, is considered by many theater lovers to be a sort of national treasure, even more so because of its examination of our nation's history.
It's the story of Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the Caribbean who rose to prominence through his impressive skill with a quill, his smarts and daring during the American Revolution, and his affiliations with the likes of George Washington and the other Founding Fathers. It's not a spoiler to reveal that Hamilton dies in a duel at the hand of Aaron Burr, his lifelong frenemy. Burr himself admits to the deed in the show's opening number.
Hot tip: If you're new to Hamilton, do one of two things before seeing the show. Either listen (and I mean actively listen) to the Original Cast Recording, or read up on your history. To attempt to suss out both the 144 words-per-minute packed into 2.5-hour run-time while simultaneously picking up on the political nuances and historical nuggets -- that's asking a lot of your brain. So do your homework.
I've personally been doing my homework for years. This Marcus Center viewing was my second time seeing Hamilton. The first was about two years ago in Chicago, and Lin-Manuel Miranda himself happened to be sitting in the audience, just a few rows away. I'd heard that Miranda had been known to show up at to the various Hamilton productions across the country -- maybe acting as quality control, or maybe to ask folks to donate to good causes, like he asked of us that night in Chicago. The man clearly continues to put his heart into this show and all it stands for, touring productions not excluded.
This touring cast is great. Maybe not as great as the cast I saw during the show's Chicago residency, but still great. The high-caliber ensemble tightly and flawlessly executes Andy Blankenbuehler's dynamic choreography for movements full of fire and intensity. I've seen touring casts come through Milwaukee with lackluster dancing in the past, so it was a relief to find that Hamilton delivered the goods.
The set design also lends itself nicely to touring. The show's rotating stage and perimeter of raised wooden platforms nestle nicely into the Marcus Center. To my knowledge, nothing noteworthy has been dumbed down or excluded from the tour's staging.
Back to the performers, one must always remember that Lin-Manuel Miranda's masterpiece is every bit as non-stop as its titular character. Many of Hamilton's strongest songs are extremely fast-paced, requiring actors to run sprints within the marathon that is this show. Overall, the cast's vocals are best when they have more space to stretch out, but perhaps that's to be expected.
Joseph Morales as Alexander Hamilton delivers the role with coolness and calm -- at times, too much so. Relative to the other characters, this Hamilton comes off a bit soft-spoken, leaving me wishing he'd had more consistent presence. Perhaps this was a conscious choice? Nik Walker's Aaron Burr brings ample personality, injecting more humor into the part that one might expect. For me, it was a pleasant surprise. As George Washington, Marcus Choi emits a commanding energy that tempts one to stand to attention during "Right Hand Man." He also really brings it home in "One Last Time."
As Mulligan/Madison and Lafayette/Jefferson, Desmond Sean Ellington and Warren Egypt Franklin respectively deliver an exceptional duo. They're a fun and funny pair in Hamilton's otherwise more-somber second act, and their vocal chops are up to the challenge. Franklin is especially on point, his voice reminiscent of the show's Original Broadway Cast alum, Daveed Diggs. He's one of the strongest in the cast. When these two gents team up with Walker for "Washington on Your Side," the harmonies are silky smooth. As Laurens/Phillip, sweet-voiced Elijah Malcomb hits the right notes of hopefulness and innocence.
Now for the ladies. The trio of Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy/Mariah are strong-voiced across the board. Ta'Rae Campbell's Angelica nails the breathless race that is "Satisfied." She also brings exceptional personality in small but memorable moments. As Eliza. Erin Clemons' pretty voice shines brightest in "That Would Be Enough" and "Burn" -- songs where she has a little more room to breathe (literally). But Clemons also keeps pace and treats the audience to some killer runs in "Helpless." Overall, she's a joy to watch. As for Peggy/Maria, Nyla Sostre brings such a soul-stirring tone, it's a shame she doesn't have an even bigger part to play.
One final character shout-out: Neil Haskell as King George, funny with the air of a petulant child. Haskell's comic chops come through in his over-annunciation of certain words and playful sneering. He also lends cartoonish humor to the sleeper hit "The Reynolds Pamphlet." The staging for this number lends laugher and absurdity to an otherwise scandalous moment.
Part of what makes Hamilton such a beloved work is the way it balances sorrow and upset with lightness and fun. Revisiting history doesn't have to be a slog. We all can learn a thing or two about our country's formative years while singing along to "Cabinet Meeting" rap battles in your car. Hamilton makes history accessible and relevant, reminding us in song of the power of the written word, how immigrants shaped our nation, and that the world is wide enough to coexist and learn from each other's ideals. Those are some profound lessons, all courtesy of a show that's so much more than a hip-hop musical.