Douglas Mayo reviews the much-hyped musical Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre and finds that the hype is well-deserved.
As a musical theatre lover I sometimes wonder what it must have been like to be in the audience when Hammerstein and Kern launched Show Boat, when Rodgers and Hammerstein opened Oklahoma!, and when Gillian Lynne’s iconic Cats first hit the New London stage. I can only imagine it must have felt akin to what I felt when I had the honour of watching the much hyped new musical Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre.
The London production of Hamilton marks the first outside the UK and eyes have been fixed on it to see how it would fare with a non American audience. The show was greeted with the kind of response that a major international rock group would receive from an audience as diverse in background and age as I have ever seen in the theatre.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has scored a remarkable trifecta in writing the book, lyrics and score of a musical which is not only one of the most intelligent evenings of musical theatre I have had the pleasure to experience, but in his integration of rap and hip-hop into the musical form has raised the bar and changed the future of musicals forever.
Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers whose life would make for a fabulous modern-day soap opera, were it not for the fact that it is all true. A remarkable, intelligent man he co-wrote the constitution, fought in the war of independence, established the coast guard, and built the basis of the Federal banking system in the USA, was the subject of one of American politics first sex scandals and was killed in a duel by the then Vice President Aaron Burr. Who says musicals have flimsy plots!
The London cast of Hamilton is headed by the incredibly charismatic Jamael Westman as Hamilton, this incredibly tall leading man with only two previous credits has established himself in short shrift as a major contender. His Hamilton is commanding, complex and riveting. As Aaron Burr, Giles Terera’s performance is transformative, layered and rich. His transformation from being indecisive and non-committal to the crucial moment of self-realisation in The Room Where It Happens is remarkable. Michael Jibson’s twelve minutes onstage as King George very nearly stole the show and it was interesting to hear the reaction from a British audience to their King’s petulant, regal outbursts.
This cast of Hamilton features a cornucopia of rich performances. Jason Pennycooke’s Lafayette and Jefferson are dazzling, Tarinn Callender’s Mulligan is bullish and brash whilst his Madison is priggish and staid. Obioma Ugoala’s Washington is majestic and riveting, it’s a compelling performance that I look forward to seeing again, Cleve September’s Philip Hamilton had those around me in tears in the second act, whilst Jack Butterworth and Leslie Garcia Bowman deserve mention and were outstanding as Seabury and Lee respectively.
Rachelle Ann Go, Rachel John and Christine Allado as the Schuyler sisters are pure bliss. As Eliza, Rachelle Ann Go is stunning as Hamilton’s wife. In the second act it’s a performance that takes off and is sure to have tissues raised.
Andy Blankenbuehler’s vibrant and charismatic choreography has the talented ensemble of Hamilton in perpetual motion around the Victoria Palace stage. David Korin’s set brings together the stuff of colony building, ships ropes, timbers and foundations are exposed. Imagine what the greys and filth of Les Mis must have looked like when first built and you get the idea.
Alex Lacamoire’s musical brilliance can be felt throughout, his orchestrations are vibrant, driving and keep the excitement rushing ever forward and how wonderful it is to hear real strings in a West End pit once again. Richard Beadle’s band are fabulous and full marks must go to Nevin Steinberg whose sound design ensures that EVERY word in this fabulous show is heard with a clarity that must not become the new West End standard!
Thomas Kail’s brilliance in bringing this epic piece of musical theatre to the stage must never be under-valued, but ultimately Lin-Manuel Miranda has succeeded in successfully integrating rap and hip hop seemlessly into the modern American musical form, something Stephen Sondheim started many years ago when the Witch in Into The Woods first rapped about the contents of her garden. Lin-Manuel’s Hamilton is nothing short of brilliant. It’s intelligent, entertaining, and is bringing an entirely new audience to musical theatre. Believe the hype and book tickets, I’ll be making several visits, there is a lot to take in and I’m sure other gems to be identified and savoured on future viewings. I’m also sure that once the cast have had a few months to get comfortable with the material this Hamilton will reveal new treasures and I for one can’t wait.