Broadway Review: “Hamilton” Grapples Richly with the Past at the Richard Rodgers Theatre

April 1, 2016 | Broadway | Tags:
Review: “Hamilton” Grapples Richly with the Past at the Richard Rodgers Theatre (Open Run)
Book, Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Directed by Thomas Kail
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” (Alexander Hamilton)

In March 2008 Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking “In the Heights” opened on Broadway after critically acclaimed runs Off-Broadway and in Connecticut. That story – set over the course of three days – celebrated the unique vicissitudes of the lives of those living in the largely Dominican-American neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. Mr. Miranda, with the “In the Heights” creative team that includes Alex Lacamoire, Andy Blankenbuehler, and director Thomas Kail, again brings his unique creative perspective to Broadway with “Hamilton” and in this new musical focuses on the creation of the United States and, specifically, on the role played in that process by one of its Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton.

With a refreshing book inspired by Ron Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton,” profoundly innovative music that includes hip-hop, jazz, blues, R&B, and Broadway, and scintillating lyrics, “Hamilton” exceeds all expectations of theatre-goers and rocks the Richard Rodgers Theatre stage with engaging performances and exhilarating choreography by Andy Blankenbuehle. Lin-Manuel Miranda weaves the story of “the bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman [who] grow[s] up to be a hero and a scholar” with sensitivity and a firm commitment to non-traditional casting. “Hamilton’s” diverse cast reverberates deeply with the rhythms of equality inherent in the Declaration of Independence.

Unlike Ron Chernow’s narrative about Hamilton that “sometimes becomes hagiographic,” Mr. Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton grows up to be a hero and a scholar with his shortcomings, flaws, misjudgments, and improprieties fully intact and exposed for all to see. “Hamilton” chronicles the Founding Father’s life from his arrival in the United States through his death at the hand of Aaron Burr (“I’m the damn fool who shot him”). Scenes in the musical highlight Alexander Hamilton’s meteoric rise to power and influence from becoming Washington’s right-hand-man to becoming the nation’s first Treasury Secretary.

The diverse cast is uniformly outstanding and brilliant. Javier Muñoz is a scrappy Alexander Hamilton wanting revolution and change and his chance to be in the middle of the action. Phillipa Soo is tenderly hopeful as Hamilton’s wife Eliza who seems willing to forgive him his transgressions and support his role as a Founding Father. Sisters Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry) and Peggy (Jasmine Cephas Jones) challenge Eliza’s mate with “new ideas in the air.” Leslie Odom, Jr. is exquisitely amoral as Hamilton’s nemesis Aaron Burr and delivers a consistent and splendid performance. Daveed Diggs’ engaging performances as Lafayette and Jefferson and Okieriete Onaodowan’s performances as Hercules Mulligan and James Madison command the stage and inhabit the memory. And Jonathan Groff’s performance as the defeated King George is a tour de force of comedic tyranny. At the March 30th performance, Austin Smith embodies George Washington with a graceful power that transcends the bounds of history and Andrew Chappelle handles his multiple roles with praiseworthy panache.

Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography is innovative and precise, often leaving the actors mid-movement underscoring the book’s intent. David Korins’ multi-level set is massive in scale, and with its large turntable, parallels the enormity and unstationary nature of forging the new nation. Howell Binkley’s lighting is transcendent and mystical and marvelous as is Paul Tazewell’s costume design.

What is the ultimate importance of “Hamilton?” Watching the performance, the audience member is struck immediately with how the politics of the current Presidential election counterpoint with Alexander Hamilton’s life and legacy. In his endorsement of Jefferson for President, Hamilton says, “Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none.” When he first meets Aaron Burr, Hamilton confessed, “I wanted to do what you did. Graduate in two, then join the revolution. He looked at me like I was stupid, I’m not stupid. You’re an orphan. Of course! I’m an orphan. God, I wish there was a war! Then we could prove that we’re worth more than anyone bargained for.” All Americans – perhaps in particular young Americans – want to prove that their nation is worth more than anyone bargained for.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s transformative and redemptive “Hamilton” not only begins a conversation about a Founding Father whose legacy has been overlooked but also raises deep enduring questions that need answers from every generation. What comes next for our fragile Democracy? What does it mean to live in a world where there is “no status quo?” What kind of revolution is needed in this political turning point? If that revolution is more than intellectual in nature, “Who lives, who dies, who tells [our] story?” Will the current “founding fathers and mothers” struggle as much as Hamilton to make our new nation “right” and to implement the opportunities needed for change? And finally, how willing are the new revolutionaries to take as their/our mantra, “Hey yo, I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry and I’m not throwin’ away my shot!” Only time will tell and Alexander Hamilton has planted the seeds in a garden he never lived to see. How will our garden grow?