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HAMILTON - An American Musical

HAMILTON - An American Musical

(U.S. National Tour)
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Inspired by the book "Alexander Hamilton" by Ron Chernow

Dallas Summer Musicals

Directed by Thomas Kail
Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler
Music Director/Conductor: Roberto Sinha
Scenic Design by David Korins
Costume Design by Paul Tazewell
Lighting Design by Howell Binkley
Sound Design by Nevin Steinberg
Hair and Wig Design by Charles G. LaPointe
Orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire
Arrangements by Alex Lacamoire and Lin-Manuel Miranda
Production Stage Manager: Anna R. Kaltenbach
Stage Manager: Rolando A. Linares

Alexander Hamilton-Joseph Morales
Eliza Hamilton- Erin Clemons
Aaron Burr -Nik Walker
Angelica Schuyler- Ta'Rea Campbell
George Washington -Desmond Sean Ellington
Marquis de Lafayette / Thomas Jefferson- Kyle Scatliffe
Hercules Mulligan / James Madison- Fergie L. Philippe
John Laurens / Philip Hamilton-Elijah Malcomb
Peggy Schuyler / Maria Reynolds- Tia Altinay
King George III- Jon Patrick Walker
Philip Schuyler/James Reynolds/Doctor- Willie Smith III
Samuel Seabury- Aaron J. Albano
Charles Lee- Daniel Gaymon
George Eacker- Keenan D. Washington
Ensemble: Aaron J. Albano, Conroe Brooks, Nicole Deroux, Daniel Gaymon, Kristen Hoagland, Carina-Kay Louchley, Tyler McKenzie, Samantha Pollino, Jen Sese, Willie Smith III, and Keenan D. Washington.

Reviewed Performance: 4/6/2019

Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Theater Critic/Editor/Founder, THE COLUMN. Member, AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Here’s the precarious tightrope a musical must balance on once you’ve been hyped beyond imagination by the New York critics and Broadway audiences. On top of that this same show receives so much buzz that it is blowing up social media with fans screaming heaps of praise as they are snapchatting, Facebooking and instagraming the bejesus out of it with photos of themselves in front of the theater to get that image of the show’s logo. Not to mention the endless YouTube clips of people singing songs from the score. The buzz is so deafening its creators and stars end up on the covers and in the issues of Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Time, and Newsweek. When awards season comes along, it snatches up every award in its sight, from Tonys to the Pulitzer. Hell, it even gets a special Kennedy Center Honors award. The only other musical that reached this kind of maddening status of hype and labeled a history making musical was Jonathan Larsen’s RENT. But when a musical has all that overwhelming hype and cascades of glowing reviews it builds so much for an audience member (especially we of the theater tribe) to expect. Will it meet the hype? I’ve seen highly praised productions before, walked out thinking, “It didn’t do it for me”. Example, Susan Stroman’s CONTACT (2000). Thus, walking into Lin Manuel Miranda’s hip hop opus HAMILTON I did have some apprehensions. Did it meet the hype, or was it the “in” thing for theater folk in 2015, but has now lost its luster five years later?

The promise I have kept to myself when it comes to new musicals starting back in 1995, I’ve kept to this day. I had the great joy of seeing the entire original cast of RENT (1996) on Broadway the very week after they won the Tony for Best musical. I did not listen or buy the cast recording until AFTER I saw the show. That way I could remember what I felt and saw when the first notes and vocals floated into the theater. This has served me immensely to this day as a theater critic. That way I have no preconceived thoughts or images of what the song might “look” like on stage. Or sound like, because it would or could be a different actor in that role. So, I am one of the very few in this country that did not download or listen to a single track of HAMILTON. I only knew of the number they did on the Tony awards telecast. So, Saturday night was my first time to hear the entire score. I knew what genres it would be of course as I had read for the last five years every article and watched every TV interview that Lin Manuel Miranda did.

Miranda’s score is an assemblage of hard-core rap battles, slick hip hop, flashy pop, and soothing R&B. But you can hear his influences ebb from his music and lyrics. I could detect Sondheim, Jonathan Larson and Common among others. He composes anthems like “My Shot”, hilarious showstoppers like “You’ll Be Back” and “What’d I Miss?”, lush soul numbers like “The Schuyler Sisters”, to numbers that bleed so much subtext such as "The Room Where It Happens" and “Satisfied”, and numbers that demolish your heart to pieces like “Burn” and “It’s Quiet Uptown”. I’m so, so thankful that I didn’t know the score beforehand, because I was able to experience each song and lyric for the first time, not knowing the story or what would happen next. Thus, when the tragic, painful moments were exposed on stage, it was so much more emotional and surprising to experience.” Forgiveness, can you imagine?” I lost it. Just lost it.

Praise must also be given to Alex Lacamoire’s Tony/Grammy award winning orchestrations as well to his and Miranda’s arrangements. He has violins, cellos, and violas along with bass, drums, piano, guitars, and keyboards to go from hip hop to traditional musical theater in a split second. The underscore for several key scenes is also perfectly and beautifully orchestrated to add another layer of emotional strength to those scenes.

David Korins set is a unit piece that uses a turntable to unprecedented, heart stopping effects in regards to staging and blocking that I have NEVER seen in a musical- not even in LES MIZ! Korins design is a two-story set that is a hodgepodge of bricks, wood, lamps, coves, arches, ropes, and so forth. Throughout the evening props and furniture are brought on stage and placed on the turntable for the various scenes. Also, there are huge lanterns that are flown in from the rails that add so much to several scenes (and pulsate light with the beats!). Immersing Korins set with light is designed by Howell Binkley. His lighting design is sublime from the first beat of the first song to that heart stirring finale. Because this musical is not relying on banks of video screens, mega dance finales, or razzle dazzle, Binkley has smartly designed his lighting to capture the right emotion no matter how personal and intimate it is. Throughout the piece he knows where to bring in the light, the color and intensity for the moment, as well as what to light upstage. It is marvelous to observe this all evening long. Paul Tazewell’s costumes are classic colonial, but with a twist of modernization. The Schuyler sisters wear rich satin pastels that float in the air. The leading and supporting men are in colored costumes that pop because the ensemble are in white. Jefferson is in opulent purple with ruffles, looking like a tall version of Prince. During the Off-Broadway run he was in brown, the switch in color totally amped up his character. The rocking ensemble were clothed in an assortment of creams and whites, with slick black boots. But all evening long they added various costume pieces on top of their white costumes for the dozens of characters they played all evening long.

Thomas Kail’s Direction/staging and Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography can be summed up in a single phrase: it is a work of art. No special effects, no need to rely on technical aspects, but simply just on the book, music, and lyrics to create visually and emotionally the beating heart that is HAMILTON. The staging and blocking are almost operatic and epic due to the visual emotional strength, impact, and power it achieves in scene after scene. But also, the use of small intimate gestures and moments within the blocking and staging that seeped so much subtext and organic truth. Blankenbuehler’s choreography was pure exhilaration to view throughout the evening as well. It was a mosaic of dance that included street hip hop, jazz, modern, contemporary, ballroom, waltz, and even Fosse! Which makes sense. I first saw (and met) Blankenbuehler when he was a dancer in the original Broadway company of Fosse. He continues his Fosse work as he was one of the Choreographers for the current FX series FOSSE/VERDON.

What makes Kail and Blankenbuehler’s talents shimmer so blindly and display it in such staggering success is how true collaboration looks like when the direction, staging, and choreography blend and flow so seamlessly throughout the entire piece. I cannot think the last time I’ve seen a musical use the ensemble as much as HAMILTON does. Even when there were big solos, there would be three or four ensemble members are doing some form of staging or choreography onstage, not distracting, but instead matching the emotion of the lyrics, music, or vocals. I was astounded to see this happen over and over all night long. Ensembles in most musicals do the big numbers, then exit. Not here, Director and Choreographer used them consistently, almost like they were as a unit a principal character on its own, be it providing full vocal harmonies, subtext within the choreography, or emotional support to the scenes. Kail and Blankenbuehler have truly raised the bar on the artistry of how a director and choreographer collaborate to bring rich life to a musical.

The role of Alexander Hamilton is a complex role and not an easy one for any actor. Suffice to say because of the book and score, it must be played by an actor of color, the subtext has built a foundation for that. For this tour it is Joseph Morales who tackles the role and succeeds with unequivocal triumph. His portrayal of Hamilton is that of man who so strongly believes in his convictions, theories, and politics he will do no matter what to get his voice heard and vision fulfilled. But we also see a man with great flaws in his marriage, morals, and his own politics as well. Morales balances his acting craft splendidly from authoritative statesman to just a man who sincerely loves his wife, but still commits adultery. We see in Morales’ subtext and physicality battle within himself the repercussions for his dividing affections in naked honesty in Act II that was stark and devastating to watch. Morales’ attack to the hip hop score is slick and sharp as glass. His cadence and prosody within the beats and lyrics were some of the best of the entire evening. It flowed where it needed to be and popped and snapped exactly at the right moment to leave its mark. His diction was spotless throughout the score. Morales chemistry with the principals and company was tight and unbreakable, especially with Erin Clemons (Eliza) and Nik Walker (Aaron Burr). I watched closely how he reacted with anyone near him on stage, not once did he ignore them, but instead bringing them into the scene. This role requires someone with a very powerful magnetic stage presence that can carry a herculean role like this, and Mr. Morales has that in bountiful abundance.

Erin Clemons delivers a standout performance as Eliza Hamilton, the wife of a career politician. When she first appears on stage you are taken aback for a second because she is a stunning beauty. Clemons has this warm, ethereal like stage presence that draws you in immediately. She sang one of the most devastating ballads I’ve heard in a long time composed for a musical titled “Burn”. She allowed the organic, naked reality of the truth explode from her heart and pour out in vivid honesty that gripped your heart. Her soulful soprano voice wrapped around the ballad and squeezed it tightly to make sure we understood her anger and hurt, and we did. The scene with her and Joseph Morales as her husband Alexander for “It’s Quiet Uptown”, is where you see an actress at the top of her craft. Without saying a word, only using her body and small, intimate facial expressions she exposed all her emotions, and it demolishes you. She is a revelation.

At times as the story unfolded, I felt that Nik Walker as Aaron Burr reminded me as a twisted version of Iago, or it could be a testament to Walker’s phenominal performance. It is jaw dropping surreal how the politics of 1700 mirror today thanks to his intense acting! Deals are really made in backrooms, the constant shift of power, and Burr’s political motto, “Talk less, smile more” rings so true today. The lyrics to his delicious solo “The room where it happens” speaks volumes to not only his subtext, but also to our political arena today. Walker is mesmerizing as this bitterly angry man who, while successful in his own right, felt he was always in Hamilton’s shadow. The final straw is what Hamilton does during the Presidential election (Burr was running). Walker a towering actor in stature that hovers over Morales like a vulture, a jealous one at that. Walker has some terrific numbers that dazzles the audience such as “Wait for It”, “Dear Theodosia”, and the aforementioned “The Room Where it Happens”. He also has a wicked trio number with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison titled “Washington on Your Side”. Walker commands the stage with his electrifying stage presence. It was thrilling to see how he allowed his arc to slowly rise, never allowing it to peak too soon, but just simmer beneath the surface. A tour de force performance indeed.

The two scene stealers of the show easily belong to Jon Patrick Walker as King George and Kyle Scatliffe as Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson. Miranda knew his score needed comedic breaks, and these two top notch talented actors had the audience in the palms of their hands.

Walker wore the best costume of the night, a gold and red satin royal suit with embordering, a massive, billowing cape trimmed in faux fur, topped off with a massive crown covered in bulky, blinding diamonds and rubies. Walker with his crisp, perfect diction, relished every verse of his show stopping song “You’ll Be Back”. This brilliant actor just used his face, voice, and the occasional shimmy to sell this superbly composed number- and it was one of the funniest damn numbers I’ve seen. He wasn’t over the top or hammy, but had just the right amount of cold, cucumber sandwich, stiff, upper crust Brit Royal looking down at his peasants aura oozing from his characterization. Walker was all alone on that massive stage. There were no dancers, no lighting effects or moving sets. Just him and his talent- he didn’t need any of that, because his talents were that superlative.

Kyle Scatliffe as Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson was the other scene stealer. As Lafayette he portrayed him more street like with a slight French accent, but kept him grounded. Scatliffe’s rap was the tightest of the evening. His syncopation and beats were hitting right where they needed to be within the lyrics and beats. His flow was flawless that never broke and the diction was effortless. During the rap battle with Hamilton (Joseph Morales) he was nailing down the raps round after round, he was sic! I have to say he was the best rapper and hip-hop artist of the evening. For Thomas Jefferson, he gave him a proper Colonial politician voice and attitude, but with flair and terrific comedic overtones. But Scatliffe’s portrayal also displayed Jefferson’s angry disappointments with Hamilton and how to get back at him. It was incredibly fascinating to see this dynamic actor display his range both vocally with his rap and his acting craft with two characterizations. He brought the house down with the Act II showstopper “What’d I Miss”, and later on to see his political motives within the trio number, “Washington on Your Side”.

Ta’rea Campbell as Angelica Schuyler gave a spectacular performance. She is love with Hamilton, but things do not turn out how she hoped they would. Campbell is an exquisite looking woman, wears her emotions on her beautiful face, and we as the audience witness it all. She sang what now has become some of my personal favorite songs from the score that I keep listening to over and over since Saturday night. Such as “Helpless”, a song that has lyrics that greatly expose clearly what Angelica feels. The other is the haunting, and heartbreaking ballad, “It’s Quiet Uptown”. Campbell is the soloist with the full company providing vocal support, they all provide one of the most astonishing, hair-raising ballads I’ve heard and seen staged. Both myself and the woman to my right were in tears in the audience Saturday evening. That’s how powerful Ms. Campbell’s talent is.

Another epic vocal moment was Desmond Sean Ellington as George Washington when he sings in Act II the number “One Last time”, he has informed Hamilton he’s not running for President. It starts off as a soothing R&B mid-tempo song, but crescendos into a bountiful gospel song that fills your heart thanks to Ellington’s Lion like vocals that soar high into the upper balconies. Ellington’s acting craft as Washington is that of a leader trying his best, but keeps hitting walls, some set up by the politicians themselves. Ellington is terrific in the role.

Others in the cast providing stellar, exceptional performances include Fergie L. Philippe as Hercules Mulligan/James Madison; Elijah Malcomb as John Laurens/Philip Hamilton; Tia Altinay as Peggy Schuyler/ Maria Reynolds; and Aaron J. Albano as Samuel Seabury.

Finally, we must bestow kudos and give a prolonged standing ovation to the unparalleled triple threats that make up the ensemble of HAMILTON. This ensemble uses ALL their tools within their talents in equal amounts all evening long. The choreography is so complex, specific, and so technically precise that one wrong movement will destroy the visual. They must be so in the moment as actors of what is occurring on stage, not just the usual “murmur, murmur, murmur” pantomime crowd crap upstage that so many ensembles fall into. I could clearly see them deeply invested in every lyric and moment. Vocally, I was floored by their gorgeous, full harmonies that were so compelling and filled the music hall with glorious music. At Saturday’s performance the sensational ensemble consisted of Aaron J. Albano, Conroe Brooks, Nicole Deroux, Daniel Gaymon, Kristen Hoagland, Carina-Kay Louchley, Tyler McKenzie, Samantha Pollino, Jen Sese, Willie Smith III, and Keenan D. Washington.

I conclude this review with this final thought that I hope will bring you some insight:

When you have done theater since you were in Elementary school, you are judiciously aware that you are the only actor of color within the cast. It’s not until you get to college that you see a few other actors of color. You graduate college and go into the real world of theater and realize the startling fact of the small representation of actors of color in show after show. There may be one or three, if that. Thus, it was a cathartic and surreal moment when the full company appeared on stage in HAMILTON within the first six minutes at the top of Act I. Why?

Because Miranda had a vision of having actors of color portraying our forefathers and an audience not only buying into this story but that everyone truly believes and feels every single minute of it. And guess what? Everyone has! Just look what this musical has become. Words like history making, revolutionary, it has broken barriers, shattered records, and has smashed through the non-traditional casting wall once and for all have been written about HAMILTON in countless magazines, websites, and articles. Audiences have constantly posted on social media how much they loved the show, how it moved them, that they cried, and so forth.

There were no uproars or mob like protests at the box office because Hamilton was Hispanic, Jefferson, Washington, and Madison were African American. This musical has become a box office monster hit with no end in sight. You clearly can catch the subtext that Miranda has written within his score to give it purpose and reason for actors of color to portray these forefathers of our country. I must confide; I was at a loss for words when the entire company appeared on stage. Because as an actor of color and as a theater critic (writing for 29 years now), and as someone who has such love for this art, I never thought I’d live to see a musical with actors of my own color and others of color on stage portraying the principal roles that are historical figures! My brain had a quick flashback to my college days where a theater professor at a college production audition told me to read the side with a Mexican accent (it was a six-line bit part for Wilder’s The Matchmaker). When you have seen so much theater or have done so much theater as I have, seeing HAMILTON and seeing your own people cast in principal roles like these- and we all know this does not happen EVER. Well, I have to say it was a stupefying moment to let it all sink in. Lin Manuel Miranda has indeed created history here and has shattered the barriers that confine actors regarding non-traditional casting. This all engulfed me within the first six minutes of the production, and I allowed my tears to fall off my face freely. You may not understand the impact of that moment, but trust me, it is something quite monumental in the eyes of others.

I’m grateful now to have seen the two American musicals that have made history and will-and has- changed the art and creation of the musical. I was there to witness at the Nederlander Jonathan Larsen’s RENT in 1996, and now to have seen this epic called HAMILTON. A masterpiece that is so much more than a look into our American history. It is multi-layered hip hop symphony of music bathed in subtext, an emotional piece slathered in today’s music genres, with a cast that mirrors vividly what today’s true America really looks like. Finally, it shows the audience the politics and personal mistakes our forefathers made, and yet here we are repeating those same damn mistakes again. So yes, HAMILTION meets up to its hype. But in truth, it surpassed it.

HAMILTON- An American Musical (U.S. National Tour)
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Inspired by the book "Alexander Hamilton" by Ron Chernow
Dallas Summer Musicals, The Music Hall at Fair Park