BWW Review: HAMILTON at Shea's Buffalo Theatre
It's not often that a Broadway musical creates so much press and hype that almost every US citizen has heard of the phenomenon that is HAMILTON. The show that got it's start off Broadway at NY's Public Theatre has taken the country by storm. Still the hottest ticket on Broadway 3 years after it has opened, the touring production has been anticipated in almost every US National tour market for a full two years prior to it actually surfacing. This has created record breaking subscription ticket sales just so everyone could be guaranteed a seat for HAMILTON. And now Buffalo has it's shot as HAMILTON and all it's frenzy has come to Shea's Buffalo Theatre.
What best can be described as America's first successful rap-opera is full of remarkable ingenuity and creativity that has not been seen on the Broadway stage in decades. With book, music and lyrics all by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the story of Alexander Hamilton is presented in such a way that audiences are almost taken aback by what they are witnessing. After his successful IN THE HEIGHTS, Mr. Miranda has conceived of the unimaginable-- a story told entirely with rap and hip hop music, lacking any traditional dialogue. Thus my suggestion of classifying this an "opera" or "sung through musical." Accepting that rap and hip hop are truly musical genres may seem contrary to traditionalist views on musical theatre, but remembering the effects of rock music in the rock opera TOMMY, it is not unheard of to bring other musical forms onto the Broadway stage.
Besides creating the entire piece, Mr. Miranda also played the title character in the original Broadway production, which won numerous Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize. His concept employs everything and anything that seems unconventional. Color blind casting allows for an African American George Washington and the most racially diverse casting you will find anywhere. Costuming by Paul Tazewell has nods to traditional 18th century garb, but include sleeveless shirts, tight tights and a charmingly shocking color palette for the principals costumes. Hair styles are purely 21st century and oddly work towards melding the Revolutionary War with urban street wear.
A plethora of history is poured into the first 20 minutes of the show and it takes a while to become accustomed to the speed in which the text is delivered, to say nothing of it's rap patterns. And just when you think it is simply rap-dialogue, it turns into an accompanied song. The brilliant and Tony Award winning choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler has created a new dance style in which the entire ensemble is a huge part of the story telling, including backup singing and then fully integrating them into the scene changes. No one simply walks around the stage at any time, but is choreographed to strut with a nod to the Fosse style, with angular contortions that weave hip hop with Broadway moves. Orchestrator Alex Lacamoire supports the songs when needed and then brilliantly gets time to shine in the most unusual of places. In ACT II's "The Room Where it Happens" the company raps during congressional negotiations with fascinating and unexpected contrapuntal interjections of brass synthesizers.
Director Thomas Kail has a huge working area in which to work, with the scenic design by David Korins. Multiple levels of rough hewn wooden platforms and mobile staircases, backed by brick walls and large ropes allow multiple playing areas. With the aid of subtle lighting by Howell Binkley, intimate interior home scenes can contrast with war scenes. Telling the story of our of America's forefathers may not be easy, but with the quick pace of rap, we learn of Hamilton's immigration to the US as a young man, his quest for a political life, in addition to his personal foibles. He marries one of three sisters, but carries on a alleged long distance affair with another of them. His infidelities almost lead to his downfall, as he secretly pays for an secret affair with a neighbor that becomes public knowledge. His tenacious spirit, as well as his inherent smarts become clear as he creates the US Financial system.
Austin Scott is Alexander Hamilton, and his tall stature and good looks allow him to command the stage. He seamlessly transitions from rap to full on singing, and moves with a comfort that belies a dancer. At this performance the role of Aaron Burr, Hamilton's rival, was played by Alexander Ferguson. Mr. Ferguson oozed confidence and was the perfect foil to Hamilton. Paul Oakley Stovall was dominating as George Washington, and brought a welcome levity to the role, when needed.
Peter Matthew Smith garnered the most laughs as the foppish King George. Dressed in regal red and gold with an over the top wig, his commentary on Hamilton's story was both funny and ironic, as both men had to deal with multiple obstacles throughout their careers. His show stopper song "You'll Be Back" rings more of a musical comedy number, but Miranda brilliantly adds some "da da da dat da" in the chorus, that can be though of as George's own attempt at rap.
The charismatic Bryson Bruce was Thomas Jefferson, but strutted and posed more like George Jefferson of the 1970's sitcom. He is instantly likeable in his over the top portrayal. The famous Schuyler sisters are composed of Angelica (Stephanie Umoh), Peggy (Isa Briones), and Eliza (Hannah Cruz). Hamilton marries Eliza but has the affair with Angelica. Ms. Umoh brings a strong forthright portrayal of the scorned sister who still is protective of Eliza. Cruz is heartbreaking as the beloved wife who must endure her husband's infidelities as well as the death of a child. Her strong singing voice beautifully anchored the finale.
History laden musicals may sound like unusual commodities, but the Tony Award winning "1776" fully succeeding in it's telling America's independence from England. Today audiences continue to learn more of their forefathers than was simply told in grammar school. Miranda's brilliant new style of storytelling allows Alexander Hamilton's life to unfold as people open their minds and embrace the creativity put into this ground breaking musical.
HAMILTON runs through December 9, 2018 at Shea's Buffalo Theatre.A limited number of seats are released daily for this near sell out run. Contact sheas.org for my information.