Thursday, April 6, 2023

Broadway tour of "Hamilton" at the Orpheum Theatre

After four and a half long and eventful years, the Pulitzer Prize winning musical and cultural phenomenon Hamilton has returned to Minneapolis (rescheduled from summer 2021). I'm lucky enough to have seen it five times now, and every time I see it, it has a different resonance. From the fall of 2015 when things felt hopeful, to the night before the 2017 presidential inauguration when they did not, to now - not too long after this and every other live performance was shut down for a year and a half. Hamilton has something to say about every moment in our history and present. Senator Amy Klobuchar kicked off press night talking about the Save our Stages Act that provided aid to performing arts venues during that very long intermission, so the overwhelming feeling last night was gratitude. Gratitude that we were all able to be "in the room where it happens" - it, of course, being theater. Gratitude that Lin-Manuel Miranda's singular creation is still going strong and more relevant and amazing than ever. Hamilton is the quintessential American story told through the quintessential American art form - musical theater. While not without some continuing challenges, that art form is back, in big and small ways. And it doesn't get any bigger than Hamilton. It's the rare phenomenon that doesn't just live up to the hype, it exceeds it. And it's the rare three-hour show that doesn't seem too long; it's engaging from start to finish and never lets up its whirlwind tour through the early history of this country. Limited tickets for the month-long run are still available from the official seller here (please DO NOT purchase tickets from third party vendors), or enter the daily lottery for the chance to win $10 tickets.

Inspired by Ron Chernow's 800-page biography of the first Secretary of the Treasury, Lin-Manuel Miranda (aka LMM) wrote the music, book, and lyrics of Hamilton. As if that trifecta accomplishment wasn't enough, he also played the title role in the original Broadway cast. He takes us through Hamilton's life, from growing up poor on a small Caribbean island, through his role in the Revolutionary War and the founding of this country, through personal struggles and tragedies, and finally to (spoiler alert) his death in a duel at the hands of his rival Aaron Burr. In LMM's genius, he's made this nearly 250-year old story feel fresh, modern, and relevant. He makes the founding fathers seem like real people, with flaws and all, not just dry and boring figures in a history book. I love what Oskar Eustis, the Artistic Director of the Public Theater, says about LMM, that like Shakespeare, he elevated and ennobled the language of the people. Maybe that's part of the reason for the popularity, that the characters in Hamilton speak, act, love, grieve, rage, live like we do. Because after all, the founding fathers were just people too.*

Hamilton is incredibly dense, in words (more than twice as many as most musicals) and themes (freedom, identity, legacy, adultery, war, loyalty), so that five times isn't even enough to catch everything. Songs range from rapid rap battles, to uptempo hip-hop songs, to lovely ballads. The musical themes are as intricate and complex as are the lyrics (with some references to musical theater - LMM is a composer who loves musicals). The piece is almost entirely sung through, with little spoken dialogue. There is constant movement onstage, thanks to Thomas Kail's Tony-winning direction, Andy Blankenbuehler's Tony-winning choreography (performed with precision by this fab ensemble, more on them later), and the rotating concentric circles on the stage. Yet the busyness and movement is nicely balanced by quiet character moments in this nearly perfectly constructed musical. It almost goes without saying that the intricate two-level set, the dramatic lighting, and the 18th Century-inspired chic costumes are perfection. Everything about Hamiliton is very thoughtfully crafted and executed.

photo by Joan Marcus
Another piece of LMM's brilliance is the casting of this 18th Century story, not in a way that's historically accurate but in a way that represents the America of today, with all of its beautiful diversity. This is color conscious casting done right, in which telling this story with intentional and thoughtful diversity broadens it and makes it more inclusive, as America should be, and allows all Americans to see themselves in this important American story.

photo by Joan Marcus
This touring cast is universally strong, from the leads through the hard-working ever-moving ensemble. Edred Utomi is an excellent Hamilton, from youthful exuberance to the weariness of a man living with grief, a strong spirited performance throughout it all. Josh Tower is a great narrator as Aaron Burr, leading us through this story and his role in it. Carvens Lissaint has a commanding voice and presence as the original commander in chief, George Washington. The trio of Hamilton's buddies is also well cast, all of them playing two roles - David Park is a charmer as both Lafayette and Jefferson, Tyler Belo is fun to watch as Mulligan/Madison, and Jon Viktor Corpuz brings great energy to both Laurens and Hamilton's son. Stephanie Umoh gives a strong performance as Angelica, Alysha Deslorieux is lovely as Eliza, and last but not least, understudy Bryson Bruce steals every scene making the crowd-pleasing role of King George III his own.

I sometimes speak of a "post-Hamilton world," by which I mostly mean the shining example of color conscious casting, but could also refer to the great heights of achievement possible in music-theater, my favorite art form. It's no longer acceptable to sloppily adapt a hit movie to make a hit musical, or to have a stage full of white people. Because Hamilton shows us that theater can and should be better than that. And at a time when it seems to many of us that America has lost its way, that we can't even recognize America anymore, it's a wonderful thing to be reminded of what America was, is, and should be. A place where everybody has a voice, where everybody's story gets to be told, where diverse people join together for freedom, justice, equality, and music! Of course our founding fathers didn't think of it quite like that (e.g., slavery); in many ways Hamilton imagines an even better beginning to this country, one that takes into account the struggles of the last 200+ years to get to a more glorious place than the founding fathers could even imagine. And at the same time, inspires us to continue the march towards freedom, justice, and equality for all.

Hamilton continues at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis through May 6.

the grave of Eliza and Alexander Hamilton
(personal photo from Trinity Church in NYC)

*Much of this post is borrowed from my review of the 2018 touring production.