By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Hamilton: it’s epic. It’s crazy rich in its language, music, and theatricality. And it explodes onto the stage with an offer, no, a demand, to focus both history and musical theatre from the outsider perspective.
It’s been fully seven years (and a wealth, of Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize) since the sensational arrival on Broadway of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s audacious musical. And a lot has happened in the world (not least to the American mythology of greatness). Hamilton finally arrives in Edmonton, in a first-rate, powerfully performed Broadway Across Canada touring production on the Jube stage. And it will leave you dazzled, and a little dazed, at the achievement of it all — both the broad strokes and the layers of detail.
I’ve seen Hamilton a couple of times before (like many amongst the cheering (and masked) opening night audience I suspect). But it still had that effect on me. You’ll leave buzzed.
The story playwright/composer/lyricist Miranda tells — in a wild non-stop swirl of hip-hop, jazz, blues, G&S, rock, pop, musical theatre — is about an impoverished orphan immigrant from the Caribbean, who came to New York “longing for something to be part of” and became one of the American founding fathers.
Hamilton rose fast. He was an assistant to George Washington, a general in the Revolutionary War, a creator of the federal Treasury, a scholar and a pamphleteering defender of the Constitution. He gets a great delayed entrance in Hamilton, after Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, and his arch-rival Aaron Burr review, in rap, this improbable biography.
Anyhow, the story is, to say the least, an unusual choice of subject matter for the American musical theatre, which has hitherto not given much thought to the Federalist Papers. Hamilton hands over the birth-of-the-nation storytelling to performers of colour. And it gives much of the musical to hip-hop, the street-wise form that comes at you in a sassy barrage of cheeky rhyme, crowded with syllables.
Hamilton, and Thomas Kail’s production, capture the flow of history in contemporary language, movement, music, and look. Paul Tazewell’s costumes attest to that, with their mix of period costumes and androgynous modern dance gear for the chorus. The cast are set in perpetual motion by Andy Blankenbuehler’s stunningly inventive choreography that takes the story non-stop into the urban whirl of New York, into battle, into backroom politics, “the room where it happens.”
Kail’s stagecraft unspools in a seamless flow of scenes. The room where Hamilton happens, in David Korins’s beautiful design, is lined with wood and brick, with hanging ropes, fold-down staircases, moved by human agency not techno effects. The lighting (by Howell Binkley) has sources like rustic lanterns and candles, and it has dramatic meaning. Characters appear in flickering shadows to command the limelight of history, and disappear into blackness.
At the centre, brilliant, ambitious, brash, maddeningly mouthy, energized (kinda like the musical itself) is Alexander Hamilton. And he gets a superb performance, capturing all those qualities, from Julius Thomas III. “I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy, and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot,” he declares in song near the outset. Thomas crafts beautifully the arc by which the upstart outsider catapults to success, negotiates tragedy at the intersection of the personal and the political, and then (spoiler courtesy of history) does throw away his shot in a fatal duel with his nemesis Burr.
Burr, the cautious lawyer who is Hamilton’s rival, a man of careful calculation increasingly smoulders with grievance in the course of time, is something of a tragic figure in Hamilton. And Donald Webber Jr. delivers a performance with real resonance.
Other stand-outs include Darnell Abraham’s soulful George Washington, and Justin Showell’s a raucously funny double-turn as the Marquis de Lafayette in Act I and a flamboyant Thomas Jefferson, the francophile denizen of Monticello (who never did free his slaves), in Act II.
In his recurring cameo As King George III, the monarch who famously lost America and went mad, Rick Negron is great fun. The audience cheered so loudly every time he came onstage that my companion, an independence-minded Scot, wondered if it was partly by dint of performing in a country still tied to British royalty. I’ll have to get back to you on that.
The women of the production are less distinguished. But Victoria Ann Scovens as Eliza, the wealthy Schuyler Hamilton married and the Milika Cherée as Angelica, the sister he didn’t marry, do deliver their pop ballads feelingly.
The American Dream, long fractured in the realities of the centuries since 1776, has crumbled into dust lately, as we know in a baleful storm of racism, violence, and right-wing backwardness. It gives Hamilton, with its hand-over of idealism and hope to outsiders, a particularly heart-wrenching quality of loss. “If you stand for nothing,” Hamilton says to Burr in Act I, “what’ll you fall for?”
As this touring production demonstrates, the resourcefulness of theatre artists at the top of their game, unleashed on a groundbreaker of a musical, turns to stage magic that is human, and essentially low-tech. That’s inspiring in itself. Catch yourself a ticket if you can.
Broadway Across Canada
Book, Music, Lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Directed by: Thomas Kail
Choreographed by: Andy Blankenbuehler
Starring: Julius Thomas III, Donald Webber Jr., Victoria Ann Scovens, Darnell Abraham, Justin Showell, Milika Cherée, Rick Negron
Where: Jubilee Auditorium
Running: through July 10