THEATER REVIEW: “Hamilton” @ Playhouse Square by Roy Berko

Through Sun 8/26

The story goes that while on vacation from performing in his hit Broadway show In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda read a copy of the biography Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. Miranda perceived the story as a musical and started to write what was then entitled The Hamilton Mixtape.

An Obama White House invitation led to him performing what would later be the first song of the opening number of Hamilton. Thus was laid the foundation for what is one of the most successful musicals in theatrical history.

The sung and rapped Hamilton centers on the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers. The musical styles include R&B, pop, rap and traditional style show tunes.

Hamilton is not the first musical based on American history or political figures. 1776, like Hamilton, is set in revolutionary times, specifically showcasing the Continental Congress during the summer of 1776, revealing the founding fathers’ lively debates. Benjamin Franklin in Paris gives an account of Franklin arriving in Paris in an attempt to raise money for the colonial revolution against England. Fiorello!, one of nine musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, showcased the life of Fiorello LaGuardia, the colorful mayor of New York.

Each of those shows follows the format of the well-conceived book musical, as modeled by Rogers and Hammerstein in Oklahoma and used by most shows from the mid-1940s until Hamilton. They had a format that included dialogue leading into songs, often leading into dancing. The first acts ended with a conflict that needed to be resolved in the second act. The language was grammatical English prose.

From a stylistic standpoint, Hamilton gives us something new. It’s a contemporary rap musical which tells the story in a series of scenes in which the movements are choreographed to not only develop visual ideas, but to help create characterizations and move set pieces, and songs that seamlessly tell the tale and give clear insight into each of the characters who sing them.

The casting includes a racial mixture of actors as the Founding Fathers and other historical figures. Even the conclusion is different. Most modern day musicals end with a splashy showstopper that brings the audience to its feet for a resounding curtain call. Not Hamilton. An low-key composition closes the show, emotionally wrapping up the story of a man and his quest. Wow!

The touring production is brilliantly directed by Thomas Kail. The impressive choreography, which adds new vocabulary to the world of Broadway dance, is by Andy Blankenbuehler. The music supervision and orchestration is the impeccable work of Alex Lacamoire.

Some potential attendees worry that they will be unable to grasp the words because they are mainly in rap form. Not true. A discussion with audience members in varying parts of the auditorium at intermission and after the show indicated that if the listener didn’t get every word, they shouldn’t be concerned. The structure of the scenes, the movement and the reinforced ideas will allow the understanding. (Listening to the show’s score while reading the libretto before going to the show can help as will watching some of the Hamilton sources on YouTube.)

The cast is excellent. Nik Walker sparkles as Aaron Burr. Marcus Choi commands as George Washington. Joseph Morales is totally believable as Alexander Hamilton. Kyle Scatliffe adds humor to his joint roles as Thomas Jefferson and Marquis De Lafayette. Jon Patrick Walker delights as the pompous put-upon King George. The sub-leads and the ensemble are all on target. The functional stage set is a duplicate of that on Broadway.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Hamilton is a special theatrical event and experience. The script is riveting, the music involving, the choreography creative, the production superb. The touring production is a not-to-be-missed opportunity to participate in one of those special once-in-a-lifetime experiences. This is one show that definitely deserves its standing ovation. Bravo!

Hamilton runs through Sun 8/26 at the Key Bank State Theatre. There are tickets available for select performances as well as lottery tickets available for each performance. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to playhousesquare.org/.

Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association and Cleveland Critics Circle]

 

 

 

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