Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Margin Notes: Hamilton

Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos
and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Marquis de Lafayette, Hercules
Mulligan, John Laurens, and Alexander Hamilton.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Seen on: Sunday, 2/1/15.
My grade: A++. This was spectacular, from start to finish. A truly extraordinary new musical.

Plot and Background
Lin-Manuel Miranda's biographical musical, inspired by Ron Chernow's book Alexander Hamilton, follows Hamilton from the rising of America's revolution, to Washington's presidency (with Hamilton as his right-hand man and Secretary of Treasury), through to Hamilton's death in a duel with Aaron Burr. Running parallel to the narrative is Hamilton's lifelong friendship/rivalry with Burr - the first an outspoken activist, the second a man more comfortable with the non-committal middle ground, but both vying for immortality and power. This is the show's world premiere and the run has already extended three times.

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew In the Heights quite well, as well as Miranda's other Broadway ventures - Bring it On and the Spanish translations in the revival of West Side Story. I knew some of Hamilton's story, due mostly to high school history class and that milk commercial. And I knew the production was going for racial diversity in a big way - as it happened, the only white cast members were either in the ensemble or Brian d'Arcy James as King George.


Play: Miranda reunites with much of his In the Heights team, including director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and brings back his signature mix of hip hop, rap, and love of old school musical theater to tell this story in a vivid, pulsing rhythm. It was truly thrilling to see just how much Miranda's skills have developed since ItH. I liked that show a lot, the score was incredible, but the story, such as it was, sort of meandered - it was about a community more than a narrative. Here in Hamilton, the story is crisp, clear, and with a distinct purpose in its telling. There's a driving rhythm, not just in the score, but in the characters themselves. There are moments of hilarity, like King George's light pop songs of cynical dismissal, or Jefferson's taunting of Hamilton's downfall after the Reynolds Pamphlet. And there are moments of absolute beauty and poignancy, such as the parallel Schuyler numbers of "Helpless" and "Satisfied" (that staging gave me feels, man), and Hamilton's climactic duel with Burr, as both their streams of consciousness are dilated out into a long desperate frozen moment in time. It was truly thrilling to watch this show unfold - it felt like we were all on the brink of something historic, something that could actually change musical theater and the way we tell stories, and whom we allow to tell them. It legitimized so many voices that have been traditionally marginalized, and there was nothing self-conscious or didactic about it. It was unapologetic, proud, and joyous - much like Hamilton himself (or at least as he's portrayed here). I can already tell this will make my top theatre list for the year.

Cast: I should first note that the preview performance I saw was one where author and star Lin-Manuel Miranda stepped back to watch the show and his standby, Javier Munoz - who had also understudied Miranda for In the Heights - went on in the title role. Munoz did marvelous work, really capturing the rhythm of Miranda's raps, such that I could almost hear them both singing in tandem. The narrative is interestingly structured, however, in terms of performance demands - by which I mean, while Hamilton's role gets plenty of showy play and some intricately complicated lyrics, the dramatic weight of performance rests largely elsewhere - on Leslie Odom Jr. as Burr, on Phillipa Soo and Renee Elise Goldsberry as the Schuyler sisters - and they carry the weight quite effectively. This is probably a good decision in the end, as Miranda's dramatic skills veer somewhat to the self-indulgent, even as his linguistic skills are stellar. The entire cast was shown off to an exciting and dynamic degree, with Odom giving the best performance I've seen from him, and Brian d'Arcy James and Daveed Diggs giving hilarious turns as King George and Lafayette/Jefferson (these two were the actual best and I'm now in love with both of them). The maddening thing I kept encountering, however, was whenever either BDJ or Soo sang, their voices were so gorgeous, I wanted them to sing the entire score. Awkward, that.

Design: The set looked a mix of a tavern and a ship - wooden scaffolding and stairs, barrels, hanging ropes, brick walls - a spacious but variable enough set to allow for a variety of spaces within it. And the turntable floor was used to great effect, particularly in the two Schuyler numbers, and in the climactic duel. The ensemble sported cream-colored vests or corsets, breaches, and knee-high boots. The rest of the costumes were, I suppose, your standard issue period wear, the women's dresses more clearly noting the changing times as empire-waisted dresses came into fashion in the second act. Everything felt sumptuous and rich, while also allowing for the kinetic staccato choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler, and energetic rap battles that constituted the cabinet meetings.


Running: now playing at The Public - Opening February 17, 2015. Closing: May 3, 2015
Category: musical
Length: 2 hours, 40 minutes, including intermission

Creative Team

Book, Music, and Lyrics:
 Lin-Manuel Miranda (Inspired by the book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow)
Director: Thomas Kail
Designers:  David Korins (Set), Paul Tazewell (Costume), Howell Binkley (Lighting), Nevin Steinberg (Sound), Charles LaPoite (Hair and Wig), Andy Blankenbuehler (Choreography), Alex Lacamoire (Orchestrations), Alex Lacamoire & Lin-Manuel Miranda (Arrangements).
Cast: Carleigh Bettiol, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Andrew Chappelle, Ariana DeBose, Alysha Deslorieux, Daveed Diggs, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Sydney James Harcourt, Sasha Hutchings, Christopher Jackson, Brian d'Arcy James, Thayne Jasperson, Stephanie Klemons, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Javier Munoz, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Jon Rua, Phillipa Soo, Seth Stewart, Betsy Struxness, Ephraim Sykes, and Voltaire Wade-Greene.

Renee Elise Goldsberry, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Phillipa Soo as Angelica
Schuyler, Alexander Hamilton, and Eliza Hamilton. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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