I’m not a regular theater critic and this isn’t a review per se. It’s just one person’s take on what it was like when the pop culture phenomenon “Hamilton” descended on Altria Theater, Wednesday, Nov. 20. The smash hit musical is the hottest ticket of the year and the invitation to media night was our chance to see what all the fuss is about, four years after its debut on Broadway.
“Hamilton” has a cult of true believers and, at first glance, it’s easy to see why. This new school epic, which runs nearly three hours, feels like it sprung fully formed from the fertile mind of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who drew inspiration from the biography “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow. The musical won every award you can imagine (and then some) and we're just now getting the show on its third U.S. tour – not too shabby for a project begun during a Vassar College workshop by a guy who once wrote jingles for disgraced politician Eliot Spitzer.
From the opening note, it was clear that many in the crowd already knew these songs by heart and, with so much Virginia history in the lyrics, it felt like a home team crowd. When was the last time you saw people cheer every time a Founding Father bounded onstage? Like a Kehinde Wiley portrait come to life, these fathers are played by African-American actors who spend much of the production spitting history in bombastic and in-your-face fashion. While not my favorite era of hip-hop, the rapid-fire wordplay keeps you focused on the clever lyrics, lest you miss something. You quickly see that "Hamilton" doesn't push back too hard on any myths of the Founding Fathers, rather it glorifies and delights in them.
Midway through the first act, my initial reaction was that “Hamilton” felt like the producers of “Glee” staging a “West Side Story”-themed Super Bowl halftime show. The impressive scenic design by David Korins reminds me of an industrial Western set with massive wooden structures, while a rotating centerstage provides the most visual moments, such as the freezing of characters during a duel while others revolve around them like a scene from “The Matrix" or an expensive MTV video.
Most impressive was the ease with which Miranda weaves a tapestry of hip-hop, R&B, gospel, blues and jazz, a credit to his fluency in American culture and Broadway traditions. "Hamilton" is brimming with dense numbers that tend to fade into one another without pause; some of the funniest lines happen so quick you almost miss them. Bass lines boom like canons.
The ensemble performances were great: George Washington, who my program says was played by Paul Oakley Stovall, had a huge presence, his booming baritone delivering some of Miranda's best lines – he even got soulful in Act II, which I thought had far better songs. Lead Edrid Utomi was solid in the title role, if his voice seemed a little quiet, Bryson Bruce tackled Thomas Jefferson with memorable gusto and the Britpop segues from King George III (Peter Matthew Smith) were a fun comedic breather. However, some of the women characters struck me as a little regressive, almost like movable props. And while there are flipped races in roles, I didn’t notice any gender fluidity, which seems like a natural move for a production with this kind of modernization agenda.
One simple way to judge Broadway musicals is by whether the songs stick in your head. I can’t say that many of these did, none being hummed during my cab ride home (I was told it was too crazy to even think about parking around VCU). But the soundtrack is massively popular; maybe it's a generational thing. I might’ve liked more funky “Hamilton” flows in the vein of the socially conscious hip-hop I grew up on (Tribe, De La, Public Enemy) -- or if Miranda, who is Puerto Rican, had mixed in a little salsa maybe, or tried any new musical hybrids. These songs felt like lyrical exercises with soap opera transitions -- I thought of R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” reconfigured for the History Channel -- with hip-hop as the operatic ladder from which to disperse chunks of plot exposition in dizzying fashion.
For the sheer spectacle, you can see why “Hamilton” is so popular. It does breathe some fresh air and relevancy into the usual tourism-driven, franchise-happy world of Broadway. And it felt especially aimed at younger fans who probably would be bored to tears by Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and its handling of similar congressional intrigue.
Still I could never fully shake the weight of the heavy exposition, as if a bulky history book was being speed rapped by a Hot 97 cypher – and worse, the interpersonal character drama never amounts to much, which means (gasp! heresy) the action drags in spots with the drama a little unearned. But give this money-printing musical credit for never fully stepping off the gas, even if Miranda could’ve trimmed maybe 45 minutes for a tighter, more effective show.
The timely story of passionate immigrants building a new country is at the heart of “Hamilton,” and it’s easy to like the production's ambition and heart, as well as the shake-up of Broadway’s approach to hip-hop culture (which a friend and actual theater critic indicated was woeful). Regardless of warped historical facts, “Hamilton” will probably end up doing more than most high school classes to excite younger generations about U.S. history.
But I couldn't help lamenting a little: Weren’t there other characters back then who deserve a louder voice in the history books? Who might’ve also charmed audiences by rapping their stories onstage in 2019 and who, in essence, could tell the same story without the patriotic filters? Maybe Miranda could tackle Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” one day.
"Hamilton" runs through Dec. 8 at Altria Theater. Tickets are still available. There is a daily lottery with 40 tickets for each show for $10 each – download the HAMILTON app. There are single tickets as well as limited-view seats and every day tickets are released. For tickets and show information visit www.BroadwayInRichmond.com.