Friday, September 25, 2015

New York, Day Two:  “Hamilton” 
I think it’s fairly safe to say there has never been a musical quite like Hamilton, now (and for the foreseeable future) playing at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on 46th Street.  Yes, In The Heights first exposed us to creator/star Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical and lyrical talents, and showed audiences were willing to pay Broadway prices for hip-hop musical style. Many shows have experimented with non-traditional casting (Patina Miller as the Leading Player in Pippin, Norm Lewis as the first African-American Phantom of the Opera).  But Hamilton, the story of founding father (and duel victim) Alexander Hamilton brings the passionate street sensibility of hip-hop to a historically-accurate portrayal of Hamilton’s life and contributions to this country with such verve that you care nothing about the skin color of George Washington and Aaron Burr and James Madison and Thomas Jefferson – but care very, very deeply about the men they were.If you want a taste of what Hamilton is about, have a peek at this video of Miranda performing what, six years later, would become the opening number, an amazing rap anthem that establishes Hamilton’s character in just over three minutes.

The show is marvelously entertaining, especially in act two, once the young republic has gained its freedom and the political battles begin.  The rap battle between Hamilton and Jefferson over the establishment of the Federal Reserve bank is epic – and epically-unexpected.  It’s Schoolhouse Rock meets 8 Mile, complete with Jefferson dropping the mic.  “Don’t modulate the key to not debate with me.”

Though the story is a little muddy in parts of act one, I’m willing to forgive it, given it was a chaotic time in history, and it’s a complex story being told.  Revolutions are rarely clean.

I’m especially prone to forgive, given that the rest of the production is flawless.  The set by David Korins is massive: huge beams framing a giant space, with a second level walkway, moveable stairs, and a large turntable stage.  The lighting grid created by Howell Binkley comprises more instruments that I believe I’ve seen – and that includes more than one U2 stadium concert.  He uses them all to create gorgeous, energetic, intimate tableau – whatever the story requires.

The choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler (who also did Miranda’s In The Heights) is contemporary without being experimental. Whether you are focused on a single performer or the ensemble as a whole, there’s always something compelling and beautiful to look at.  

The performers are pretty much equally brilliant, but if anyone steals the show, it’s Jonathan Groff as King George III, whose pouting and foot-stomping gets most of the loudest laughs.  Though the line that got the biggest applause of the night was when one of the characters says “Immigrants – we get the job done.”  (Hamilton himself being an immigrant, born and raised in the Caribbean.)

I suppose if you absolutely hate hip-hop rhythms and lyrical patterns, you could find a reason not to love Hamilton.  (But if you love hip-hop, you’ll hear references to famed rap and hip-hop performers from Grandmaster Flash to Eminem.)

My only other caveat – other than to say “Go!” – is that I wished I had read Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton (upon which the musical is based) before I entered the Richard Rodgers Theatre last night.  I believe it could only have enhanced my experience of a brilliant theatrical event.

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