BWW Review of SPAMILTON: AN AMERICAN PARODY at Dr. Phillips Center, Fun But Flimsy
SPAMILTON is the story of the making of Hamilton... but only as imagined by Barack and Michelle Obama during a hypothetical White House dream sequence.
No really, that's the premise.
The sheer weirdness of that setup - inspired by the Kennedys' Camelot obsession - is my favorite thing about the show. Well, that and its New Yorky willingness to dive deep into the annuls of Broadway history, Hamilton's more mainstream fans be damned. (Bonus point to the lyric that mentions BroadwayWorld.com.)
I just wish the laughs were bigger and the lampoon cleverer.
A lifetime of "Weird Al" records has made it very hard for me to enjoy musical parody that doesn't rise to the Weird One's standard of brilliance. Too often, the songs in SPAMILTON do what his don't, recycling lines from the original song even when it doesn't make sense to do so, seemingly because nothing else sprang to mind.
It's symptomatic of SPAMILTON's inconsistency: quite funny and thoughtful in one moment, down a rabbit hole the next. For every inspired sequence in which Lin-Manuel engages "Stephen Sondheim as Ben Franklin" in a lengthy debate about the density of rhymes, there's a lazily written riff like "not throwing away my pot" (an extended refrain that comes out of nowhere and exists only for the cheap laugh of a weed joke). Too many of the rhymes are moon-and-June; too many of the jokes are mere references in disguise; too many of the allusions are a crutch.
The show's operating logic is pretty questionable too. The central thesis here is that Lin-Manuel wrote Hamilton in an effort to save Broadway from the likes of Disney and Book of Mormon. But Lin-Manuel is pretty darn Disney these days, and Hamilton itself is now on its way to Disney+. For that matter, Book of Mormon isn't exactly Cats. So the argument doesn't ring true. In the latter half of this one-act show, SPAMILTON does finally acknowledge Miranda as Disney's new rising star, but it never attempts to reconcile that fact with his supposed disdain for the Mouse House as asserted at the top of the show. Granted, Alessandrini's program notes stipulate that no part of the libretto is rooted in fact, but comedy only works when there's at least some element of truth. Without it, SPAMILTON's through-line falls flat.
Still, my inner theatre geek can enjoy himself even when my inner "Eat It" loyalist feels let down. I laughed out loud a handful of times. I squealed at an inside joke or two. As a showtunes lover, I felt seen. So if you're like me, SPAMILTON just might be worth your while.
On tour, T.J. Newton plays "Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton." Like the rest of the cast, he has his work cut out for him. Even in send-up, those rhymes are tight and not easy to pull off. Newton is a natural stand-in for Miranda, his voice closely approximating the "Aaron Burr, sir" we all love. He's part of a talented six-person ensemble.
Tristan J. Shuler's Daveed Diggs is especially uncanny. Rendell Debose brings a big voice and a strong sense of personality to each of his many roles; you warm to him right away. As stoic Leslie Odom Jr./Aaron Burr, Datus Puryear's comedy is more understated and reserved, working as an effective balance against the madcap antics that the other characters call for. Austin Frederick Rivers spends less time on the stage, but his big solo is my absolute favorite: a King George-inspired ballad about Hamilton's big-tent appeal. (I won't spoil the punchline for you.)
Marissa Hecker plays all the Leading Ladies (Hamilton's and otherwise), which is the kind of fact that is itself a statement of acclaim. She's stepping into a role written for Christine Pedi, Forbidden Broadway legend and reigning queen of impersonating divas. Hecker's impressions are never quite Pedi-esque (whose are?), but they get the job done. Her playful energy keeps the audience in high spirits even when the material isn't all there.
SPAMILTON is very much a cabaret, playing on small stages with a single pianist for accompaniment. That setup makes the silliness (and sloppiness) a little easier to swallow... and if nothing else, these tickets are still a lot easier to score than the real deal's.
What do you think of SPAMILTON on tour? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.
Photography Credit: Copyright Roger Mastroianni. Pictured, left to right: Chuckie Benson (not featured at Dr. Phillips Center), Ani Djirdjirian (not featured at Dr. Phillips Center), and Datus Puryear. Photo courtesy of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.