Hamilton: An American Musical – Chicago Review
Last night, I had the priviledge of seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-award winning musical Hamilton in it’s Chicago iteration. I have been familiar with the soundtrack for months and I will say that the opportunity to view the show live adds several dimensions to the show that will not let “Hamilfans” down.
If you are not familiar with Hamilton: An American Musical, I would suggest you take a listen and find out for yourself what all the hype is about. Miranda slays it with poetic lyricism not seen in musical theater since Sondheim. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his work, among plenty of other accolades. Where else can you find someone who rhymes “abolitionist” with “show me where the ammunition is“? Or take this lyric from “Guns and Ships”:
How does a ragtag volunteer army in need of a shower
Somehow defeat a global superpower?
How do we emerge victorious from the quagmire
Leave the battlefield waving Betsy Ross’s flag higher?
Miranda is not only a brilliant lyricist, but he crafted an entire show (along with director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire) that merges today’s pop culture lingua franca of Hip-Hop with a lesser-known but incredibly fascinating story in American history. It is a story of a poor orphan from the Caribbean who fights and writes his way up to Founding-Father status during the birth of our nation. His success story then turns into tragedy and the audience is left pondering life’s deep concepts such as the seemingly indiscriminate nature of love, life, death, war, and “who tells your story.” There is comedy, espionage, adultery, forgiveness, and of course, multiple pistol duels. One of the most evident things about the show is the ethnic diversity of the cast. Instead of casting all-white Founding Fathers like the now decades-old musical 1776, Miranda casts the players to represent what America is today – a colorful mix of heritages that show how far we’ve come since the late 18th Century. It is at the same time a well-played subversive move in the performing arts, indicating that we still have a long way to go in many respects in terms of Jefferson’s ideals of equality and liberty in our nation.
Regarding the Chicago show, I recently read an interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda in the Delta Sky Magazine. In it, he says that “the kid is off to college,” which essentially means that Hamilton has now matured to the point that it can thrive without his direct nightly participation. He was right. In the opening song, I will admit that I felt slightly betrayed because the voices and actors on stage were not the original Broadway cast (which I knew going into this). But it took only a matter of minutes to hear these new voices come into their own and rock the stage in the their own right.
Ari Afsar, who plays Eliza Hamilton, was one of the highlights of the show. Flanked by the experienced Karen Olivio (Angelica) and Samanthan Marie Ware (“and Peggy” :), Ari anchored the strong and beautiful harmony of the Schulyer sisters. Their powerful performances in “The Schuyler Sisters”, “Helpless”, and “Satisfied” takes your breath away. Later in the show, when Afsar sings the slow-burn lament aptly named “Burn,” you are caught in a trance as she plays with real fire on stage and nails the deep sense of betrayal in both her vocals and acting.
An unexpected standout performer was Chris De’Sean Lee. He just finished his Junior year at Belmont University and is now Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in this Hamilton Chricago show. I love Daveed Diggs in the Broadway cast for this role and you would think that he could never be upstaged. But in my opinion, Lee did just as good or better. His French accent was way more believable than Diggs’. And though I never saw Diggs on stage, Lee filled every last bit of the role you would expect in terms of his flair, animated personality, stage presence, and “working the crowd.”
Miguel Cervantes fills the tough shoes of Miranda’s Hamilton extremely well. He shows you that he is just like his country: “young, scrappy, and hungry” with his commanding vocals and articulate rapping (which is necessary if the audience wants to understand all the creative words in the songs). Equally strong was Joshua Henry, who played a convincing Aaron Burr – probably the most difficult character to portray because of his ongoing internal struggle for meaning and external fight for notoriety.
The lighting design was a pleasant treat that one can only experience in the live show. For example, when Angelica sings about Benjamin Franklin’s eureka moment with his key, kite, and “light,” the upper stage flashes a set of lights right on cue with the words. The lights also work in some shadow magic when Washington makes the Biblical reference to sitting under his own vine. But the best lighting of all comes in Hamilton’s song, “Hurricane.” And I’ll just say that you have to see the show yourself to see what the lighting does in that song because you’re already spoiled with the fact that Burr shoots Hamilton. I don’t want to spoil everything for you 🙂
Another dimension one can only see live is the choreography. The ensemble rocked it with a nearly three-hour aerobic display of “all-in” modern and and Hip-Hop dance to tell the story. They were not merely eye candy to fill the stage. While the lead characters told the story in song and acting, the ensemble displayed the narrative by dancing (and singing) the transcendental world of emotions, feelings, consciousness, and even conscience of the characters. Of all the aspects of the show, that was the dimension that surprised me the most and the one that will stick with me the longest as I reflect on the depth of this work of art.
Finally, I cannot review the show without mentioning the brilliant comic relief performance by Alexander Gemignani, who plays King George. His subtle mannerisms and pious patronizing were perfect in the role of a nihilistic monarch who sings the blues of losing America like a pouty ex-boyfriend singing a break-up song.
In summary, go listen to the soundtrack. Then find out when the tour comes to your city. And get on the ticket-seller e-mail notification list, because you’ll have about a two-hour window to secure your ticket for a show eight months ahead before the rest of your city snatches a ticket. You will want to be in the room where it happens.
Note: Since this blog focuses on topics surrounding kids and families, I’ll add an addendum here that I suggest that parents pre-screen the lyrics and thematic elements of the show before playing it and/or attending the show with their children (the album has explicit warnings). There is language, violence, and adult themes such as the adulterous affair between Alexander Hamilton and Maria Reynolds.