I didn't realize we were running out of time. But no sooner had we walked into the PrivateBank Theatre then the usher informed us that the curtain would go up in three minutes. We rushed into the room where it would happen and sat at the edge of our seats. And then, dear Reader, the orchestra began that signature riff of chords, Burr walked in, and my heart went *boom*.
My name is Brenna, I am 34 years old, and I am addicted to Hamilton. I learned of the stage production via reviews in the New York Times and was interested, but I live in Minnesota, so it felt like academic curiosity. I had friends who saw it - twice - and recommended it, but it still existed at a remove. But in January 2016, the Original Cast Recording was available on Google Play for $.99, and so I bought it. Listened to it a couple times that month. Started to get lines and melodies stuck in my head. Listened to it Non-Stop the following month, and convinced my husband to give it a listen. Discovered that Amazon would play it via Alexa on our new Echo, and all of a sudden our four-year-old was reciting "The Ten Duel Commandments" and requesting "Wait For It" at bedtime. I read more articles, now on Vulture and A.V. Club and seemingly everywhere else, started following Lin-Manuel Miranda on Twitter, got the Hamiltome for my birthday in June and read it in one sitting. Sure, there were days in 2016 - perhaps weeks - when I'd not listen to the soundtrack, but certainly never more than a month. Thoughts of it would subside, but I'd see another reference, and I couldn't put the musical away. The Mixtape came out in December, and included my local celebrity crush. And then, for Christmas, the pièce de résistance: TICKETS. TO THE SHOW. SHIT JUST GOT REAL.
Now, this was to see the production in Chicago, not New York, but who's to say that history only happens in Manhattan? We had tickets for March 4, 2017, which was in the middle of a brief run with Wayne Brady as Aaron Burr. As others have done, I could go on and on about this cultural phenomenon, what it says about the past and the present, about American politics and music and theatre. But I'll try to focus on the actual show I saw in real life.
Wayne Brady as Aaron Burr - Let's start with the big name, who has arguably the biggest part. Brady brings a wide smile and tall persona to the role, and is well-suited to it. He is charming but largely benign through the first act, charming and restrained and articulate. His voice is not quite so buttery as Leslie Odom, Jr.'s, but solid. He was weakest in "Dear Theodosia," which is rather a hard sell for the musical anyway; it shows the two pro/antagonists singing about becoming fathers and wanting to be better than their own absent fathers, but I've always found it to strike a hollow note for the characters whom the show doesn't really show living up to their own promises to be around for said children.
In the second act, Brady carries Burr well through the crucial "Room Where It Happens" and "Washington on Your Side," but I was not convinced by his pivot in "Your Obedient Servant." For some reason, his performance through the final arc of the show fell flat for me, which was disappointing. He was 90% great.
Miguel Cervantes as Alexander Hamilton - Yes. Totally yes. It must be very difficult to step into the shoes of not just the man who originated but also fully invented the title role of a show. Cervantes, however, made this Hamilton his own. I was expecting the scrappy bastard orphan to be like a terrier, scurrying and yapping and literally running circles around everyone. Cervantes made him into an imperfectly coiled spring, just as full of energy, but more pointed and bruising. He lent a different Latino flavor than the Puerto Rican energy of Miranda; at the risk of stereotyping, Cervantes most reminded me of the Mexican gangsters that I met with my aunt once outside of Albuquerque, the ones that wore hairnets and only buttoned the very top button of a plaid short-sleeved button-up over a white tank. Ostensibly relaxed, possibly ridiculous, but still somehow dangerous. He didn't command the stage always, but that's not surprising when you have a such a dynamic ensemble. What he did do was make the most of his small moments - the "oh, shit!" aside when Burr first reveals that Theodosia is married to a British officer; the "I'm sorry, what?" when Washington says he's stepping down. He is a better singer than Miranda and made what I expected to be a kinetic yet sympathetic character into a sharp, sarcastic, intense, funny, biting, and pitiable man. He had to win me over, but every time I think back on the show, I think more positively of his performance. The moment when he climbs the stairs at the end of the first act and declares "I am not throwing away my shot!" is defiant, rebellious, driven, defensive, and petulant all at once. He does, indeed, amaze and astonish.
Ari Afsar as Eliza Hamilton - Initially, she seemed a little too Disney-princess-y. But that starry-eyed bubbly sincerity was put to good use in "Helpless," and [spoiler alert] by the time she is singing and singeing her way through heartbreaking betrayal, the contrast is really shattering. She was, unsurprisingly, upstaged by her sister, though.
Karen Olivo as Angelica Schuyler - YES. I do love Renée Elise Goldsberry on the soundtrack, and loved even more her acceptance speech for the Tony. That was a real nice declaration, but we're living in the real world, and when life hands you Olivos, you say THANK YOU. She made my husband cry more than any other actor. AND, if you read the illuminating notes on the lyrics from Miranda in Hamilton: An American Musical, the key Angelica song "Satisfied" is based on a melody he originally wrote for Olivo years ago; they became friends/collaborators with In The Heights and so it seemed terribly apropos for Olivo to play the oldest and wittiest sister. She has a slight resemblance to Afsar, so their relationship onstage gets a boost from that kismet as well. Olivo really carries the light with her, and even in the second act, when she mostly just breezes through or along the catwalk, she drew my eye and kept my attention. It makes me wish that "Congratulations" hadn't been cut from the show so that we'd just get more Angelica, and more Olivo.
Alexander Gemignani as King George III - Jesus Christ, this guy is fun.
Chris Lee as Lafayette/Jefferson - Dag, yo. This kid - he's barely 22! - was amazing. His Lafayette continually stole the limelight (especially his "You are the WORST, Burr" just slayed), and he nailed all the physical jumps and verbal gymnastics of both characters. Sadly, through the second act, his portrayal of Jefferson was inconsistent, starting out delightfully brassy and flamboyant in "What Did I Miss?" and "Cabinet Battle #1" but becoming oddly muted and flat in most of the ensemble numbers that followed (with the exceptions of "Cabinet Battle #2" and "The Reynolds Pamphlet"). It's hard to tell if that was an actor choice or a director choice, however, and while they distract at a character level, the occasional fading of Jefferson serves the show overall.
On that note, I will say that overall the set, choreography, and staging was very clever and effective. I love the sparse, rough-hewn framing of the action with the dock-like catwalk and stairs, with only a few key furniture items (a desk, a bench, a table) brought in for setting. They also used the on-stage actors of every stripe logically and creatively, with no black-clad backstage staff seen to strike or set anything.
And the costumes, la! I had no idea there were so many changes for the characters. I thought Hamilton just had four coats in the show (brown, military, green, black), but it seemed like he had a dozen, constantly evolving and refining his character's growth. Eliza got to don several fine blue frocks, also echoing the changes in her age and eras. Angelica even has five or six changes, to say nothing of the revolving velvets they put on Burr. Even the ensemble gets to upgrade their parchment-colored basics throughout, subtly enhancing the setting for each new point in the story.
There were a couple odd lighting choices in the top of the show, and at least twice characters had to sing upstage (most notably in "That Would Be Enough" where Afsar has to sit on a bench singing with her back to the whole of stage right while Cervantes listens, but not actively).
My other complaint, if you could even call it that, is that I felt Washington was miscast with Jonathan Kirkland. He has the voice, certainly, and the height, and the gravitas. But there was something just a little too... open, maybe. Perhaps I associate the historical figure too closely with his monument - towering, monolithic, flat, white, noble, blank. Kirkland gives him a soul and earned earnestness, but also a bit too much jazz, maybe. He leans in when he should simply reach out. But these are tiny nits to pick from a beast as large, many-limbed, and glorious as Hamilton.
Are you kidding? Get thee to a theater and see this show. YESTERDAY, y'all. Do not throw away your shot.