Entertainment » Theatre

Hamilton

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Sep 20, 2018
'Hamilton'
'Hamilton'  (Source:Joan Marcus)

Maybe you traveled to New York to see it. Maybe you listened to the cast recording and sat tight for the last few years, waiting for it to make its way to Boston. Either, way, it's here now thanks to Broadway in Boston, and "Hamilton" is everything you were probably hoping for: Riveting history, personal rivalries, a sex scandal, and, above all, song after magnificent song, thrilling dance, and political debates delivered as rap throw downs. If only today's affairs of state could be conducted with such wit.

The musical's book, music, and lyrics are the work of a single artist, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who - basing his book on the biography by Ron Chernow - boils down a slice of American history and then dresses it up with driving beats and hip-hop poetry. Alexander Hamilton, the man whose face graces the $10 bill, was never an American president, but he was just about everything else: A founding father, prominent figure in the Revolutionary War, indefatigable promoter of the Constitution, and the engineer of our financial system.

Born in the West Indies - and, therefore, essentially an immigrant, as Miranda takes tremendous glee in pointing out - Hamilton (Austin Scott), as we see him here, is enormously driven and ambitious. "I'm not throwing away my shot!" he declares as early opportunities present themselves. By dint of such ambition, the orphan - born out of wedlock, no less - ascends, early on, to positions of responsibility and importance, including becoming George Washington's aide and a key figure in the New Continental Army.


  (Source:Joan Marcus)

If you know even this much, the play will do the rest. Miranda sketches out the beginnings of the United States while presenting key moments in Hamilton's biography, including his youthful friendships and his first meeting with the woman who would become his supportive wife, Eliza (Hannah Cruz), daughter of General Philip Schuyler (later a senator from New York). It's a meeting engineered by Eliza's sister Angelica (Sabrina Sloan). Hamilton marries Eliza, and she offers a gently tempering counterweight to Hamilton's ravenous appetites. But it's Angelica who seems to be his confidante and soulmate, as the two maintain an intimate, and evidently chaste, correspondence. (This doesn't mean Hamilton isn't succumbing to the temptations of other women, and this, too, comes to play a major part in the story.) Meanwhile, Hamilton both chafes and flourishes under the almost paternal auspices of George Washington (Paul Oakley Stovall).

But it's Hamilton's fraught (and finally fatal) relationship with Aaron Burr (Nicholas Christopher) that forms the backbone of Miranda's play. The two forge more or less similar careers, though Hamilton - as Burr notes with a mix of bitterness and admiration - always leapfrogs ahead. Even Hamilton's ideological foe Thomas Jefferson (Bryson Bruce), who makes his superstar entrance at the top of Act Two and becomes a central player in nascent America's post-Revolutionary War internal debates, takes a back seat to Burr. It's inevitable; we know from the very start that Burr is "the damn fool that shot him."

History rarely comes alive the way it does here, thanks in large part to the contemporary forms of music Lin uses - not just hip-hop, but pop, rock, and power ballads. Even when the lyrics are expository, the music remains richly dimensional, melodious, and often driving. Better, Lin's musical sensibilities are whip-smart: It's with a huge wink that as King George (Peter Matthew Smith) sulks back in England he delivers the creepiest of "creepy ex" ballads, his sentiments toward America sounding more like those of an abusive boyfriend than a distant and disinterested monarch. ("I thought that we made an arrangement when you went away: You were mine to subdue," he croons to a tune that sounds vaguely like something from ELO.)


  (Source:Joan Marcus)

There's also the pointed, if unstated - and inescapably obvious - casting of actors of color in almost all of the roles. America looks very different indeed from this perspective. The statement comes across loud and clear: America, and history, belongs to all of us, not just a privileged elite. The assumption of equality is central to the spirit of the American experiment, and yet it also represents a potential left unfulfilled.

If the songs are fantastic, the choreography and design elements are equally dazzling. The all-purpose set by David Korins possesses character but doesn't distract, even when its best feature, a rotating platform, adds extra dynamism to Andy Blankenbuehler's muscular choreography. Howell Binkley's lighting design works with a strong color palette, and underscores the moods created by Miranda's music - sometimes a little too vigorously, perhaps, as brilliant white pulses momentarily intrude from time to time. Paul Tazewell's costumes help anchor the show in its period despite the modern music and lyrics; everyone looks like they stepped right out of a storybook, from the redcoats to the society ladies to King George himself, clad in perfect regal finery. What you see is exactly what you expect, and that secures the imaginative space that's needed to allow the music's freshness to flower.

In short - was it worth the wait? You bet! Expectations for a show that has commanded this much attention and acclaim can't help but be high, and it seemed to take forever for "Hamilton" to arrive here, sharpening the anticipation even more. Hamilton's not the only "scrappy and hungry" one in the house - this is the Hub, after all - but the show delivers on all counts. As my husband noted appreciatively, "Hamilton" even managed the astonishing feat of getting a Boston audience to cheer songs that praise New York City. Now, that's theatrical magic.


"Hamilton" continues through November 18 at th eBostonOpera House. for tickets and more information please go to https://boston.broadway.com/shows/hamilton-baa/


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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