Review: HAMILTON at Kennedy Center Opera House

The hero and the scholar returns to the Kennedy Center

By: Aug. 08, 2022
Review: HAMILTON at Kennedy Center Opera House

Hamilton, the 11 Tony award-winning musical, has returned to the Kennedy Center Opera House through October 9. (The show declined to compete in DC's Helen Hayes awards when it toured here in The Before Times: summer 2018. Is there an award for being gracious? Why not?) Seeing it post-January 6, 2021 reminds an audience that the people who formed this country were able to disagree often and significantly while still managing to value American democracy above their personal agendas. And watching the three duels depicted in Hamilton reminds today's citizens, who live in a land with more guns than citizens, that the mistaken notion that guns are worthwhile is a centuries-old mistaken notion. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the show?

The show really is one of the GOATS. (There cannot ever be just one because there will always be Rodgers, and Sondheim, and Kern; oh my. The list is really long.) Thornton Wilder once said that literature is like a torch race, and the same should be said of musicals. Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda's leg has added sampling and rap/hip hop to the medium. But his clever lyrics in Hamilton rank with anything of Hammerstein, Hart, Ira Gershwin, or Sondheim. And Miranda's characters break out into rap following Hammerstein's lesson to Sondheim's question, 'how do you know when/where to put a song?' Miranda's people rap when they can no longer sing. Musically, Miranda applies leitmotif as Wagner would and then ups the ante, giving most of the characters full-blown reprises of earlier songs. And never mere repetition, each reprise reveals new character development or plot details. Miranda's successful reprise of the reprise and the diverse casting organic to Hamilton hand off the genre of musical theatre, which had been being braided into existence via opera, spectacle, minstrelsy, et. al. during Eliza Hamilton's final days on H Street NW (she died in 1854), toward the mid-2000s where it will light the way for your granddaughters' musicals; they will live to tell this story.

Director Thomas Kail in cahoots with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler fills David Korins' spacious set with life, movement, dance, and action--unique visual experiences for audiences which maybe don't get discussed enough. The Ensemble (including one of the Dance Captains, Mallory Michaellann) form a bright shiny fast moving FossePosse numbering a dozen who don't just sing and dance, but rather are fielded as if The Rockettes and the US Army Drill Team (wearing the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps' uniforms) had a baby that could do jazz hands; do they have to join the IA too, because they roll step units into place, effect onstage dresser work, hand props to lead characters, strike furniture, dance while partnering furniture, and change their own costumes, often while singing, rapping, miming action that someone else is rapping, switching dance modes from ballet to Broadway to the cotillions and waltzes of 18th century ballroom to jitterbug as well as effortlessly morphing into lines which shadow a single character's movement or suddenly unifying into an updated Greek chorus that can throw shade or cheer on the main action. They're much too much, and just too very very: too marvelous for words.

This production contains fine performances, especially real singing in the non-rap portions of the proceedings. Nobody can ever out-cute Lin-Manuel Miranda's performance of the title role, but Pierre Jean Gonzalez dances rings around him. Who knew that you could get a BFA at an acting conservatory in Jersey? (Jersey jokes have been a Broadway staple for a century; rest of America: deal with it.)

Marcus Choi's baritone brings polish to the stately role of George Washington. Ta'Rea Campbell's strong voice suits Angelica, the strongest of The Schuyler Sisters. Neil Haskell adds a skilled falsetto to King George, whose "You'll be Back" now joins the Broadway singalong ranks of Spamalot's "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" (OK whistlealong; anyone can whistle) and "Once in Love with Amy" from Where's Charley? (just tell YouTube "Once in Love with Amy" Ray Bolger, and you can catch up). Haskell has also found a new way to pronounce "da da da da dat da ya da" and several other syllables which do not yet have symbols in the international phonetic alphabet; he's a perfect hoot.

Alas, as Aaron Burr, Jared Dixon is upstaged rather than aided by the sudden volume increase when he starts to sing "Wait for It." The sound level hits the pain threshold for listeners; and of course the louder it gets, the less able the audience is to understand his words--crucial in this song during which A.Burr's ever-growing contempt for A.Ham reaches maturity. Jared Dixon does not deserve having his work undermined by machinery.

Thursday August 4 was understudy night at Hamilton. (Please don't grieve; the show is the star of the show.) And Marcus John's singing/acting as both Hamilton's BFF, John Laurens, and later his firstborn, Philip.Ham bring fun in Act I and will make you blue in Act II (no spoilers). Julia Estrada, Conroe Brooks, and Christopher Rice-Thompson also successfully pinch hit. Vanessa Magula really had a Peggy Sawyer-night, filling the role of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton with talent, energy, and some darn good beatboxing. Her flawless vocals in early harmonic trios with Estrada and Campbell and her vibrant face near show's end as she narrates Eliza's accomplishments made memorable theatre. (Miranda only lapse as a librettist is somehow not including on her resumé the fact that the woman gave birth to eight children.) The fact that Magula cannot weep and sing at the same time (she became helpless in Act II while trying to depict suffering too terrible to name) does not count against her here (act less; breathe more); she will figure it out because she's clearly a trouper.

There's synthetic musical equipment "supporting" this talented team. It sounds potted because it is potted, er, programmed.

Logistics: Sit upstairs, people. It's less costly, and you'll be able to see the contribution of Korins' turntable to the production as well as being at a better vantage point from which to marvel at the Ensemble. Go early. Hamilton runs 2 hours 45 minutes, but the Grand Foyer now sports 6 magnetometers, and, as in any airport, security checkpoints are a bitch. The later the audience is seated, the later the show can come down. To get tickets in the room where it happens visit https://cloud.broadwayworld.com/rec/ticketclick.cfm?fromlink=2189830®id=14&articlelink=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.kennedy-center.org%2Fwhats-on%2Fexplore-by-genre%2Ftheater%2F2021-2022%2Fhamilton%2F?utm_source=BWW2022&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=article&utm_content=bottombuybutton1 or call KC Instant Charge at 202.467.4600. And please, feel free to stop the show, whenever you feel like it, of course, but I wanna hear some high class hootin', hollerin', and ovating when, after Yorktown, Messieurs Lafayette and Hamilton shake on the line which has become the "Round up the usual suspects" of our time: "Immigrants. We get the job done."

Photo by Joan Marcus




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