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Theatre in Review: Hamilton (Richard Rodgers Theatre)

Photo: Joan Marcus

There's little to add to the rolling triumph that is Hamilton, except to note that it has expanded beautifully to fit the wider dimensions of the Richard Rodgers. Seeing it once again, it's easy to forget that, only a few months ago, the life of the most forgotten of the Founding Fathers, whose signal achievements were his influence on the writing of the Constitution and the invention of our banking system, hardly seemed like the stuff of musical theatre triumph. But the best musicals make their own rules, and, just as 1776, another show about the founding of the US, once captivated audiences with its originality, so too Hamilton constitutes its own Declaration of Independence from standard musical theatre methodology.

Ignoring the precept that the best biographical plays focus on one or two key incidents, librettist-composer Lin-Manuel Miranda gives us the entire sweep of Hamilton's adult life, setting his considerable political achievements and complex personal history against the background of a nation created out of war and political strife. Miranda thus enters the historical record as the writer who noticed that, of all contemporary music styles, hip-hop, with its storytelling abilities, is best suited to the needs of musical theatre. From its opening lines ("How does a bastard, orphan son of a whore and a/Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten/Spot in the Caribbean and by Providence, impoverished, in squalor/Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?"), it is clear that we are in the hands of a writer who can spin out long, elaborate, complex lines, rivers of words that match the unstoppable flow of history being made. Hamilton uses the concision of poetry to deliver the details of a life almost impossibly crowded with ideas and events. (Ron Chernow, author of the biography on which Hamilton is based, told the New York Times that, in the first number alone, Miranda "had accurately condensed the first 40 pages of my book into a four-minute song.") Miranda's music fuses rap with a variety of pop and jazz styles, creating a singular and highly invigorating musical language. Wasn't it just last summer, following the failure of Holler If Ya Hear Me, that a chorus of hand-wringers fretted that Broadway could never accommodate anything as modern as hip-hop?

And, in Miranda's most brilliant coup, his thoroughly modern words and music are delivered by a multicultural cast, the America of 1789 represented by the America of 2015. Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington, Madison, and others, portrayed by a mix of Latino, black, and white actors, fiercely debate the concept of a powerful national government versus a loose confederation of states: Sound familiar? It's American history as a feedback loop, revealing that the issues that drive and divide the nation today were present at its birth.

Seeing Hamilton a second time, one notices anew the brilliance of Thomas Kail's staging, which makes use of Andy Blankenbuehler's restless, sinuous choreography and the turntable at the center of David Korins' set (which deals out fresh twists of fate with each revolution) to build a nonstop narrative flow filled with dozens of incisive stage pictures: Hamilton and the two women he loves (his wife, Eliza, and her sister, Angelica) posed at different points of the circle, revealing their triangular emotional tangle; two men, preparing to duel, separated by a military formation of chorus members who fall away, one by one; a furious military battle that ends with each soldier isolated in his own pool of light. Howell Binkley's seamless lighting unfurls a series of inventive looks -- including geometric arrangements of patterns and saturated colors -- most of them cued to the jagged rhythms of the score. Paul Tazewell's costumes combine elaborate frock coats and stunning gowns for the principals with form-fitting variations on period wear for the chorus, providing the choreography with a crucial assist. Nevin Steinberg's sound design is remarkably natural-sounding; except for a few passages with breathlessly fast tempi, every word is present and accounted for.

As the driven, wildly ambitious Hamilton, desperate to make his mark on history and constantly aware that the clock is ticking, Miranda is the show's heart and soul, but, on Broadway, three performances stand out. Leslie Odom, Jr., is an ideal counterweight to Miranda as the sleek, slick Aaron Burr, man of politics rather than conviction, who constantly crosses paths with Hamilton until they face off in a duel, with disastrous results; he stops the show with "The Room Where It Happens," in which Burr bares his envy of Hamilton's power and political connections, building the number to a roaring conclusion. More than ever, Christopher Jackson makes an essential contribution as George Washington, war hero and, later, the adult in the room when, the revolution won, internecine political squabbling takes over: His song of farewell to the nation provides the second act with one of its most powerful moments. As the royally miffed George III, who can't believe that his colonies don't love him, Jonathan Groff couldn't be more different from Brian d'Arcy James, who created the role Off Broadway, but he is equally uproarious delivering "You'll Be Back," the ultimate breakup song for two nations.

This is nothing against the rest of an excellent company: Daveed Diggs is equally fine as a feisty, trouble-seeking Lafayette and a malicious, acid-tongued Thomas Jefferson. Renée Elise Goldsberry is a witty, mordant presence as Angelica Schuyler, who loves Hamilton, but delivers him to her sister, Eliza, for reasons of her own. Jasmine Cephas Jones is a sultry Maria Reynolds, who entraps Hamilton in the country's first political sex scandal. Okieriete Onaodowan delivers a pair of sharply etched characterizations, as Hercules Mulligan, youthful friend of Hamilton and revolutionary spy, and James Madison, who conspires with Jefferson to bring Hamilton down. Anthony Ramos is touchingly double-cast as John Laurens, Hamilton's closest friend, and Philip, Hamilton's first-born, both of whom are taken from him too quickly. Phillipa Soo is a tower of strength as Eliza; she stuns in the number "Burn," in which, stung by the revelation of Hamilton's extramarital affair, she decides to erase herself from the historical record. Even more heartbreaking is the scene in which she extends a hand of forgiveness to her humbled, contrite spouse.

"Who lives/Who dies/Who tells your story?" These words, heard near the end of Act II, lay bare the intentions of a show that aims to make American history and musical theatre seem vivid, electric, and totally of the moment. These are good days for musicals: After years in which creative energy seemed in short supply, there's a sense of real inventiveness again, on display in shows as varied as Once, The Book of Mormon, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, and Fun Home, among others. Hamilton sees them and raises the ante by several degrees. In its conceptual ambitions and originality of execution, it takes us back to the days when the likes of Sondheim, Prince, and Bennett sought to reinvent the genre with each new effort. Once again, we can believe that there's no place that musical theatre can't go. -- David Barbour

(17 August 2015)

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