The Public Theatre
March 29 2015
HAMILTON HAS NOW TRANSFERRED TO BROADWAY
There has been a duel. One of the combatants, merely 19, has challenged a man of money who has insulted his father. The father has counselled the lad to shoot in the air, reasoning that his opponent, as a man of honour, will not wound the son. The lad does as suggested but receives a fatal wound. His parents, who have been separated because of the father's mistakes, spend the lad's last hour with him. When her son dies, the mother lets out a howl of pain that would curdle the blood of vultures. The father tries to take her hand but she decisively pushes him away. Death is a true divider.
This is Hamilton, a new musical, the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda (book, music and lyrics) which is having its premiere season at The Public Theatre prior to its Broadway debut in July at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Directed by Thomas Kail, with astonishing choreography from Andy Blankenbuehler, this is a remarkable piece of theatrical alchemy; inspiring, packed with historical interest, revelatory about the problems that beset the founding fathers and, yet, intensely human.
The Public sits on Lafayette Street, named after the famous French revolutionary who waged war against oppressive monarchies on two continents: it is sobering to watch the antics of the Lafayette character onstage knowing that his legacy offstage is profound and tangibly affects the theatre where one is seated. Equally, though, the banking system which underpins government work in the USA is traced back to the vision of the titular character, so the mists of history are heavy in the air.
Partly, it is set in a similar time period to Les Miserables, but in many ways it reflects more of the resonance of Jesus Christ Superstar, albeit replacing rock with rap as the spine of the musical tone of the piece. But it has more comedy than both, and more of a sense of 21st Century style. It may feature historical figures and deeds, but it's sensibility is entirely modern. Les Miserables tells personal stories against an historical backdrop; Jesus Christ Superstar spins a twist on a well known historical/religious tale; Hamilton tells a big historical story into which are carefully woven personal vignettes and thereby enlightens people about twists in a well known story. And it does that in an integrated, complex feat of storytelling which is ceaselessly engaging and enlightening.
The choreography is key to this. Except in the occasional moment, when a soloist has a moment of reflection or a tale to tell, the tireless and sensational ensemble are constantly on the go, providing moving physical tableaux which augment and enhance the narrative. The moves are well drilled, sensual, evocative, and crisply and cleanly executed, all manner of supporting characters coming to collective life to swell the narrative line and bring the period to charged life. Blankenbuehler creates a vocabulary of dance, stylishly enhancing every aspect of the narrative.
Kail directs proceedings clearly and with tremendous vision. Stylistically, the piece moves from political history to social history to soap opera to family drama to personal tragedy to satire to light relief to tragedy and not in a linear or predictable way: Kail grabs the audience's attention and steers them through the writing with fiendish dexterity. Nothing is confused or confusing; the path Kail chooses is direct and unwavering.
He is helped by David Korins' wonderful set, complete with double revolve, and lashings of wood, staircases and upper platforms. It might be a metaphor for the good ship USA; it might be an evocation of a long ago fighting arena. But it works splendidly and the quite wonderful lighting from Howell Binkley really makes it dazzle. A double revolve has never been used so fluidly and cleverly. Paul Tazewell's costumes are terrific in every way, especially the vest/breeches uniform for the sexy ensemble. Virile sexuality is important to the principal characters and the costumes reflect that.
Every single member of the company is exceptional. There are no weak moments, no dud notes, no dull turns. It is a tsunami of talent, smashing it at every chance.
Miranda is electrifying as Hamilton. It's a real tour de force, full of passion and absolute commitment. In turns humorous and inspiring, his Hamilton is a flawed man driven to find his moment in the Sun. Miranda makes Hamilton completely understandable even if not altogether likeable or rational. He sings with real power and beauty, and his diction is impeccable. The relationships he establishes with the other characters are true and convincing. Given he wrote the entire work, that his acting and singing is so good is almost miraculous. A giant of a talent.
As Hamilton's nemesis, Aaron Burr, Leslie Odom Jr. is every bit as extraordinary as Miranda. Measured and cool where Hamilton is flighty and hot, Burr is both the antithesis and the soul brother of Hamilton. Odom Jr. understands that entirely and matches Miranda all the way. His singing is exceptionally good and the quieter moments see him at his very best. It's a tremendous performance.
What is surprising, laudable and downright superb about Miranda's writing here is that, in this very masculine tale, there is room for some indispensable female characters who prove to be as important as the men. The Schulyer Sisters are a real force in the story, not the least because two of them love Hamilton. The one he marries, Eliza, is played with consummate skill by Phillipa Soo. Her ethereal beauty is exquisite and matches her voice, which is gorgeous and powerful in equal measure. Soo brings real, earthy humanity to the proceedings, and the story of her marriage is just as important and interesting here as the clashes of the founding fathers.
Reneé Elise Goldsberry shines like a supernova as Angelica, the Schuyler sister who loves but does not marry Hamilton. Her voice is as powerful and beautiful as her presence, and the sense of aching sorrow she conveys after her sister marries is deep and raw. The beauty of her vocal tone is clear whether she is belting, rapping or in legato mode. Jasmine Cephas Jones is the third Schuyler sister, as well as Maria Reynolds, a woman with whom Hamilton dailies to his peril. Jones is first-rate in both roles, but there is something harrowing about her portrayal of Reynolds which is haunting.
Jonathan Groff is blisteringly good as the odious King George, the personification of English pomposity, arrogance and entitlement, who gives those who seek independence manifest justification. He appears three times as the King, and each time he is genuinely funny, ostentatiously (but entirely appropriately) camp and charmingly knowing. When he first appears, Groff is outfitted in full ceremonious kit, ermine everywhere, long formal wig of endless curls, perfectly tailored red silk splashed with gold, white stockings and big buckled shoes. Once the war is lost, some of the grandness is shredded for the second appearance, and more again for the final moment. Delicious. Groff is in superb voice and shows easy comic flair; his rapport with the audience is excellent.
There is pitch-perfect work from Daveed Diggs who charms and manipulates as both Marquis de Layfayette and Thomas Jefferson, and who injects a lot of humour and swagger to proceedings. Anthony Ramos is exceptional as Hamilton's son, Philip, but also does sterling work in the first Act as Laurens. Both have excellent voices and can dance with flair. Christopher Jackson makes a believably blustery George Washington, all pragmatism and assured power figure. Another vocally excellent performance.
Alex Lacamoire presides over the musical aspects of the production and achieves marvels. The diction across the board is impeccable. There are many words delivered at break-neck speed, all are readily discernible and all keep to the tune. The more lyrical passages, when they come, are beautifully and sensitively sung. Feeling and tempi go hand in hand; this really is an aural treat. Miranda's songs might not be hum-hum-hummable but they are all interesting and put the beat into your soul as you listen. Some are ineffably gorgeous, some bright with beauty. All are interesting and very musical, and Lacamoire and his orchestra show them off in full light.
This is an outstanding production of a major new work. It literally pulses with pleasure and power. It would not be remotely surprising if it wins a Pulitzer Prize. It makes you hungry to know more of the history of the period and to hear the score again. Very few, if any, musicals have that effect. Miranda has created a marvel – and, quite possibly, a new turning point for musical theatre form.