Updated: Oct 1
Yes, it really is that good.
“Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s independent-minded new musical for the masses at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, shot open like a streamlined cannon ball Friday night. When one of the young rebels who populate this vibrant work says, “History is happening in Manhattan,” you can only nod in happy agreement.
Adapted from Ron Chernow’s 2004 doorstop biography of Alexander Hamilton, “the 10-dollar bill founding father without a father,” as the show’s lyrics put it, this speeding bio-musical is still the most fashionable — and sometimes unobtainable — ticket in town (the scintillating show is set to run at Segerstrom Hall through Sunday, October 16th).
When it debuted on Broadway, now seven years ago, Miranda’s rap-driven portrait of the rise and fall of Alexander Hamilton (this country’s first secretary of the Treasury) was given the kind of worshipful press usually reserved for the appearances of once-in-a-lifetime comets or the births of little royal celebrities.
Hamilton came to New York as a teenager from the island of St. Croix, and his pedigree hardly guaranteed success. To quote from the show’s opening moments, “How does a bastard, orphan and son of a whore, and a Scotsman dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”
Directed with vigor and finesse by Thomas Kail and featuring the multifarious Deaundre’ Woods in the title role that Mr. Miranda made famous, the show persuasively transfers a thoroughly archived past into an unconditional present tense. Written and composed by Mr. Miranda, this work may reap the pattern-bestowing benefits of two centuries of hindsight. Yet it exudes the dizzying urgency of being caught up in momentous events as they occur.
But these guys don’t exactly look like the marble statues of the men they’re portraying. And when they open their mouths, what tumbles out is a fervid mix of contemporary street talk, wild and florid declarations of ambition and, oh yes, elegant phrases from momentous political documents you studied in school, like Washington’s Farewell Address. But you never doubt for a second that these eclectic words don’t belong in proximity to one another.
Like the early gangsta rap stars, the founding fathers forge rhyme, reason and a sovereign identity out of tumultuous lives. “Hamilton” isn’t just cool; it’s utterly sincere, but without being judgmental or pious. And its numbers come across as natural and inevitable expressions of people living in late-18th-century America, with both the narrative force and the emotional interiority to propel a hefty musical about long-dead white men whose solemn faces glower from the green bills in our wallets.
So we find Hamilton and his French comrade in arms, the Marquis de Lafayette (Paris Nix), triumphantly caroling, after a decisive battle against the British: “Immigrants. We get the job done.”
Which turns out to be the perfect voice for expressing the thoughts and drives of the diverse immigrants in the American colonies who came together to forge their own contentious, contradictory nation. To quote from an oft-repeated phrase in this almost entirely sung-through show: “Hey, yo, I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry, and I am not throwing away my shot.”
Those words are declaimed by Mr. Woods as Hamilton, but they might be tattooed on the consciousness of most of the characters in the play. They are the stuff of legend — they’re all here, making war and writing constitutions and debating points of economic structure.
These include Aaron Burr (the suavely brooding Donald Webber, Jr.), Hamilton’s friend, rival and eventual nemesis, who functions as a wondering, embittered narrator to his confrere’s meteoric rise; George Washington (Darnell Abraham), who takes on Hamilton as his right hand; that master of flash - Thomas Jefferson (a delightfully dandyish Paris Nix, with whom Hamilton conducts rap standoffs in cabinet meetings on subjects like the national debt; also who doubles as Lafayette) and James Madison (Brandon Louis Armstrong, also playing Hercules Mulligan).
Mr. Woods’ portrayal of the overweening protagonist is one who is somehow cocksure and insecure at once, an unedited, effusive, garrulous one, who wears his feelings and his opinions on his flowing sleeves. Mr. Webber’s Burr, played with calculating and caressing silkiness, smiles more, says less and never takes a firm stand on anything. He seethes enviously in the shadows, commenting and plotting, Othello’s Lago with an inconvenient conscience.
And we love, but love, the assertive revolutionary women, whose idea of a pickup line is, “I’m looking for a mind at work.” That declaration comes from Angelica (the commanding Marja Harmon), Hamilton’s intellectual soulmate and the eldest of the captivating Schuyler sisters.
The others are Eliza (Morgan Anita Wood, fabulous), whom Hamilton marries, and Peggy (the gorgeous Rebecca E. Covington, who later shows up in the role of Hamilton’s notorious partner in adultery, Maria Reynolds). If we learn nothing else here, we understand that love, like history, is rarely straightforward. And “Helpless,” the ravishing song in the middle of the first act that chronicles Hamilton’s courtship of Eliza, makes room for a haunted romantic ambivalence.
The ballads that define the triangular relationship among Hamilton, Eliza and Angelica have a romantic urgency and ambivalence that had the audience in happy tears. There’s a breathless rush to those numbers. And nearly all of the score — directed and orchestrated with precise and infinite variety by Alex Lacamoire — is infused with the same sense of momentum, of a wave that you ride or drown in. And the gymnastic corps de ballet, choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, gives further, infectious life to that feeling of perpetual motion, of a speeding, unceasing course of human events. (The use of a revolving stage in a set has seldom seemed more apt; this world never stops spinning.)
“Hamilton” consistently finds muted, blurring shades of feeling, of morality, of character, within its incident-and-fact-packed story without ever sacrificing narrative clarity. And the sheer scope of what Mr. Miranda crams into his precisely but exuberantly chiseled lyrics is a marvel.
And you never feel that any single performer is pushing for a breakout moment. Well…maybe one exception. That’s King George III (a delicious Rick Negron, who sings snooty heartbreak ballads of rejection in the bouncy mode of vintage Beatles-era Brit pop with vaudevillian brilliance and condescension as he observes, from across the Atlantic, that his colonial subjects are revolting, in all senses of the word.
George is funny, fun company. But ultimately, it’s not his story. “Hamilton” is about who owns history, who gets to be in charge of the narrative. And these scrappy, adrenaline-charged lion-hearts have every right to be in charge of the story here.
In temperament, they’re probably a lot closer to the real men who inspired this show than the stately figures of high school history books. Before they were founding fathers, these guys were rebellious sons, moving to a new, fierce, liberating beat that never seemed to let up. It was feeling very much like the unstoppable, urgent rhythm of a nation being born.
SEGERSTROM CENTER FOR THE ARTS PRESENTS “HAMILTON” — Book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, direction by Thomas Kail, choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, and musical supervision and orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire, “Hamilton” is based on Ron Chernow’s acclaimed biography. It has won Tony®, Grammy®, and Olivier Awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and an unprecedented special citation from the Kennedy Center Honors. “Hamilton” features 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, casting by The Telsey Office, Bethany Knox, CSA, and General Management by Baseline Theatrical. The musical is produced by Jeffrey Seller, Sander Jacobs, Jill Furman and The Public Theater.
WITH: Darnell Abraham, Brandon Louis Armstrong, Rebecca E. Covington, Maria Harmon, Jared Howelton, Rick Negron, Paris Nix, Donald Webber Jr., Morgan Anita Wood, Deaundre’ Woods.
AND: Adam Ali-Perez, Amanda Braun, Taylor Broadard, Yossi Chaikin, Milika Cheree, Emma Claye, Amanda Clement, Eean S. Cochran, Ixchel Cuellar, Ellis C. Dawson III, Hayley Dorling, Alex Dreschke, Tre Frazier, Daniel Gaymon, Jordana Grolnick, Alex Larson, Tiffany Mellard, Kevin Murakami, Chloe Nadon-Enriquez, Julian Ramos, Elijah Reyes, Manuel Stark Santos, Justin Showell, Alex Swift, Emily Tate, Charlotte Mary Wen, Christopher Henry Young.
Performing September 28 – October 16, 2022, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday Evenings at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 1:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets start at $49.00. “Hamilton” at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive Costa Mesa, CA 92626 T (714) 556-2121, SCFTA.org
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Joan Marcus