Thursday, 16 May 2019 10:38

Review: ‘Hamilton’ is history in the making

Written by  Dana Casadei
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"Hamilton" at the Wharton Center. "Hamilton" at the Wharton Center. Courtesy Photo

Sometimes a musical comes along that everyone is talking about. Like, literally everyone you’ve ever met.

That’s how it seemed when Hamilton made it to the Great White Way a few years ago. All that hype leads to an audience that is humming with anticipation come showtime, one that can’t wait until the first note drops and they can finally, finally, see what everyone’s been talking about. (Or in the case of the woman behind me, see it for the fifth time.) But, does it actually live up to all the hype? Last night’s production certainly did. Well, mostly.

So, how does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman (who was dropped in the middle of the Caribbean and really poor) grow up to become the first Secretary of the Treasury and one of the Founding Fathers? Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tour-de-force will happily tell you — along with some help from Thomas Kail’s direction, Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, and Alex Lacamoire’s orchestrations.

Over the course of two acts, Hamilton takes audiences along for the ride as Alexander Hamilton (Edred Utomi) becomes the man on our $10 bill. But you don’t just get to know Hamilton. There are a few others you may have heard of that take center stage during the show, like George Washington (Paul Oakley Stovall), Thomas Jefferson (Bryson Bruce, who also plays Marquis de Lafayette), Aaron Burr (Josh Tower), and the Schuyler sisters, Angelica (Cherry Torres), Eliza (Hannah Cruz), and Peggy (Olivia Puckett). And you can’t forget King George (Peter Matthew Smith).

Each have their own historic moments to share and they sure do tell them.

The evening’s narrator of sorts is Burr, and audiences couldn’t be in better hands than Tower’s. He takes us through it all from Hamilton first arriving to his untimely end. At first, Tower is so restrained in everything he does but then, while singing The Room Where It Happens, that composure and restraint finally breaks, and you’ll be glad it did. Because it’s then that you get to see Tower really go for it and leave it all on the stage. Tower also dominates in the show’s more dramatic moments.

Then there’s Stovall as the first commander in chief. From the moment Stovall appears on stage, he commands respect — it’s in everything from his stance to the way he addresses his fellow actors. During One Last Time, as he hits the finally notes that seemed to vibrate off the walls of the Wharton Center, you sit up straighter, because he commands respect from the audience too, and his voice is just that good.

Cruz’s Eliza is something you don’t see coming right away. She’s fun to watch in Helpless — and sings it lovely — as a doe-eyed woman who has fallen head-over-heels for Hamilton. While it’s great to watch people who are in love, it’s the show’s later moments — when she’s heartbroken for a variety of reasons — that you can’t take your eyes off Cruz. Her rendition of Burn is filled with so much anguish and hurt, and just plain heartbreak, that it’s amazing to think only a few songs ago she was so happy. Cruz’s evolution as Eliza is one of the best parts of the production.

Now, you can’t talk about a show like Hamilton without talking about the actor who played him. Utomi has some huge shoes to fill taking on a role like this and he’s very good, he’s just not amazing. Utomi often lacked the arrogance and therefore, cockiness, that we’re led to believe a man like Hamilton had, especially in Act I. Thankfully, in Act II — where Utomi gets to be more vulnerable (an area he shines in) — his performance is leaps and bounds better as we watch Hamilton’s world fall apart. Utomi also gets some really fun comedic bits throughout the show.

Speaking of comedy, Smith steals the show as King George. He may only be on stage a handful of times, but it’s a testament to Smith that while he’s singing some really horrific lyrics, like “I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love” — all done in an upbeat pop number — you find yourself almost in tears from laughing. He’s flamboyant at an 11 and it wouldn’t work any other way.

That ability to blend genres that don’t seem to go together is one of the most interesting elements of Hamilton. It takes genres that have no business being in the same musical and mixes them as easily as a Michelin Star chef blends flavors to create the perfect dish, thanks to Miranda’s work on the book, lyrics and music.

There’s rap battles, breathtaking ballads, a few kicky pop numbers, and of course, the classical Broadway ensemble number. And it all goes together seamlessly. In the wrong hands, something like a rap battle would have felt so out of place among soaring sopranos and altos, but it never does. It makes one wonder why more shows don’t push the boundaries like this.

With such complexity in the music, it’s no wonder the rest of the show, like Paul Tazewell’s costumes and David Korins’ set, at first glance, seem so simple. But like everything with Hamilton, there’s a lot more than what one sees right away. The set, for instance, looks like the inside of an abandoned building, with lots of exposed brick, and the back wall doesn’t seem entirely finished, but when you look closer, you can fully see the layers and details, like the floor in the middle of the stage, which spins.

When Hamilton made it to Broadway in 2015 it would go on to become the biggest show of the year, if not the last decade, winning 11 Tony Awards and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Audiences all over the world have been drawn to it, and after seeing last night’s performance, it’s clear this musical isn’t disappearing any time soon, even when some performances are slightly underwhelming. History will sure have its eyes on this one.

Hamilton
Wharton Center
May 14-June 2
whartoncenter.com

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