BWW Review: We might have had to wait for it, but HAMILTON exceeds expectations in Canadian premiere
HAMILTON has proven its lasting power in the five years since it debuted on Broadway, and after landing in several international locations, the mega-hit musical about America's ten-dollar founding father has crossed the border.
The musical has been around long enough that nearly every possible critique and insight to its lyrical genius, innovative staging, and powerful casting choices has been made ten times over; however, the repetition of praise for this show doesn't take away from it's impact when you're experiencing it live. I won't pretend to be a massive fan of, or an expert on, rap music. I don't recognize the (many) nods to legends of the genre that writer Lin Manuel Miranda has snuck in, and as a white woman while I can recognize the importance of its casting of people of colour in all major roles except for the colonial King George (Neil Haskell, who plays the mad king as a deliciously campy drama queen), it does not speak to the reality of my experience. Regardless, I went into opening night excited to finally see the show I've listened to for five years, and a bit apprehensive that it wouldn't live up to the hype the world has heaped onto it.
Any worry was unnecessary; HAMILTON is absolutely worth the praise it's gotten. The almost entirely sung-through musical blazes through its two-hour, forty-five-minute runtime like it's nothing, detailing the life of Alexander Hamilton (Joseph Morales) in two acts. It begins with his arrival to New York City in 1776, following him through his hiring as George Washington's (Marcus Choi) right-hand mand during the American revolution, his role as Secretary of the Treasury in the country's first government, and all the way through to his untimely death.
It's a fast-paced, demanding work, and this cast is well-equipped to deliver. As the titular character, Morales plays the hardworking genius as a charming, slightly nerdy, very cocky know-it-all. His main rival and the show's narrator Aaron Burr (Jared Dixon) might not have a show named after him, but Dixon is a central component of HAMILTON's success with his composed, cautious Burr. His slow descent into fury is incredible, and he also delivers some of the most lyrically and plot-important numbers; the dancehall-inspired 'Wait For It' and the expository, jazzy 'The Room Where It Happens.'
Choi's George Washington is powerful on the field, but gracefully softens for more intimate scenes. Warren Egypt Franklin is impossible to look away from in both acts; his Thomas Jefferson is a flashy, globetrotting snob with a flair for the dramatic, while his Lafayette is just as eye-catching, delivering the show's fastest number, 'Guns And Ships,' with fervour. Elijah Malcomb is equally heartbreaking in both acts as Hamilton's closest revolutionary friend John Laurens and his son Philip. In Act 1, Franklin and Malcomb combined with Desmond Sean Ellington's Hercules Mulligan are the epitome of the phrase "boys will be boys" in the best possible way.
The women in Hamilton's life step in as his moral tests, checks and balances; his loving, caring wife Eliza (Stephanie Jae Park), her older sister Angelica (Ta'Rea Campbell), and the woman whose temptation leads to Hamilton's self-destruction, Maria Reynolds (Darlilyn Castillo). There's almost a bit of disconnect between Morales and Park, although her work in Act 2 carries some of the rawest and most beautiful moments in the entire show. Campbell delivers 'Satisfied,' the sister song to Parks' 'Helpless' gorgeously; and as with Park, there isn't a strong chemistry between Morales and Campbell, but hopefully it will develop and strengthen as the run settles in. Castillo doesn't get nearly as much stage-time as the other leading women but makes the most of what she does have with a powerhouse vocal performance and great subtlety in her delivery.
It's certainly ambitious to tell the story of a figure whose personal life was as rocky as his political career, but between Miranda, director Thomas Kail, and musical director Alex Lacamoire, it works ridiculously well. David Korins' scenic design, especially the rotating floor, works hand in hand with Andy Blankenbuehler's fluid, circular choreography. Every number is grounded in a character and works outwards from that point, making it simple to understand how and where to focus in a show with non-stop action.
There's nothing ground-breaking about praising HAMILTON, but seeing it in Toronto makes it easy to understand exactly why it's defied the usual boundaries that contain musicals to Broadway. The timeliness of Hamilton's story, rife with questions about legacy, morality, and situations of political upheaval still speaks to America - and the world - today. Possibly the most important component is in the choice to have America then look like America now; this is the story of a hardworking immigrant whose work was essential in creating the foundation for America's ongoing position as a global superpower.
Actually, maybe its best that it took five years for Manuel's smash-hit to reach Canada - our border neighbour has changed a lot in the last five years under its current leadership, and HAMILTON speaks to those issues and challenges in a way that's as graceful and as powerful as a well-timed mic drop.
Mirvish's HAMILTON runs through May 17 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria St, Toronto, ON.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit https://www.mirvish.com/shows/hamilton
Photo credit: Joan Marcus