When Hamilton was performed for the Obamas in 2016, Michelle Obama is said to have called it “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life.” Did she overstate things? Now that I’ve seen the show (for the first time), I don’t think she did.
Much of what there is to say about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony- and Pulitzer-winning musical play (he wrote music, book and lyrics) has already been said. Based on the 2004 biography by Ron Chernow, Miranda utilizes the contemporary idiom of rap to relay the remarkable story of one of the pivotal figures in U.S. history, Alexander Hamilton. The play is performed by (mostly) actors of color, in a hip-hop style that would probably have been anathema to the play’s subjects, perhaps even if they’d lived today. But despite the ostensible gap between the prevailing culture of that time and our own, and the piece’s often frenetic musical language, the essence of Hamilton’s story — a struggling, poverty-stricken immigrant who rose nearly to the top, then lost it all — is beautifully and brilliantly rendered.
Unlike his sometime friend, rival and ultimate nemesis Aaron Burr, who was from a wealthy, prominent family in New Jersey, Hamilton was born poor and out of wedlock in the West Indies. As a youth, he was so bright and promising that local merchants banded together to pay for his education at what is now Columbia University in New York. The ambitious Hamilton became a favorite of George Washington, the colonies’ universally respected leader (generating lots of jealousy in political circles). It was Hamilton, a Federalist, who insisted upon — and prevailed — in establishing the U.S. banking system, without which the new nation probably would not have survived. The bank’s establishment facilitated great wealth for many savvy and unprincipled investors, but Hamilton, a man of integrity despite his ambition, never exploited his position for personal gain.
While these particulars bring context and enrichment to the story, it’s possible to know nothing of them and love the show (which embraces elements of rock music and even show tunes as well as the prevailing hip-hop). Multiple elements of this touring production — directed by Thomas Kail, who directed the Broadway production also — deserve praise: the unfailingly rich vocals, the spot-on musical arrangements (Miranda and Alex Lacamoire), the dynamite dancing (choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler), the copacetic lighting (Howell Binkley) — and of course the performances.
This is very much an ensemble work, with the contributions of the supporting cast as finely crafted as those of the more prominent players. If there is a standout, it is Joshua Henry as Burr, who starts out as a pal of Hamilton’s, then gradually comes to be eaten away by envy and resentment. The most memorable song for me was “The Room Where It Happens,” about a deal done behind closed doors, with Burr on the outside wanting in. (You couldn’t help relating it to how things operate today.)
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As Hamilton, Michael Luwoye serves as a moving anchor for the story, exuding the aura of a complex, dedicated man whose carnal error tragically upends his life. And Isaiah Johnson casts his own light as Washington, a father figure for many, including Hamilton, and a moral bellwether for the nation; his “One Last Time” is a musical highlight.
While Act 1 is impressive in its pace and scope — here’s where we meet all the characters, and the groundwork is laid for the revolution to come — Act 2 packs the emotional punch, as the focus narrows on Hamilton and his family, and their poignant fate.
Sitting in the theater on Wednesday night at this particular show, with several thousand fellow citizens and a few colleagues and friends, it was hard not to ruminate on our future as a nation after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the terrible, shocking statements of Donald Trump. The company was comforting and the art was dazzling, a buffer and an abeyance for the difficult way ahead.
The Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; through Dec. 30. (800) 982-2787, hollywoodpantages.com/events/detail/hamilton.