– By Cate Marquis –
“Hamilton” returns at last to the Fabulous Fox theater, after a pandemic-caused delay, and an enthusiastic packed house awaited it, eager to see and hear Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical ode to Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was one of the lesser-known Founding Fathers when Miranda, inspired after reading Ron Chernow’s biography, wrote this history-based Broadway hit musical. There is nothing little-known about Alexander Hamilton now.
Playwright/composer Miranda had the inspired idea to cast his musical about the Founding Fathers primarily with young actors of color, upending our usual perceptions of these historical giants. Miranda’s musical is usually referred to as hip hop but, in fact, the musical styles are as diverse as the casting, including blues, jazz, rock and pop rather than the more familiar musical show-tunes style. The dialog is often rap, rolling off the tongue quickly – sometimes too quickly if you are not already familiar with the lyrics and dialog. Those who have seen this musical before, in person or on video, have an edge on keeping up, particularly when the cast, as they sometime does, get too swept up in the rapid rap pace.
One reason Hamilton may have been lesser-know was his early death in a duel with Aaron Burr, who became the better-known figure of the American Revolution. The musical “Hamilton” opens with a brief historical/biographical introduction to Alexander Hamilton, and the other major figures in his story, including Burr, the Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Hamilton’s wife Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, before launching into Hamilton’s story.
Young, smart but a penniless orphan born out of wedlock, the ambitious immigrant Alexander Hamilton (Pierre Jean Gonzales) arrives in the New York from the Caribbean just as the American Revolution is brewing in the British-owned colonies. On a New York street, the brash Hamilton approaches the already-accomplished Aaron Burr (Jared Dixon), asking his advice on finishing college quickly, as Burr did. Instead, Burr offers other advice: “talk less, smile more,” and to conceal his true opinions for safety’s sake. But Burr also takes young Hamilton under his wing, and they head for a tavern, where Hamilton meets and joins in with outspoken revolutionaries Marquis de Lafayette (Warren Egypt Franklin), Hercules Mulligan (Conroe Brooks), and John Laurens (Elijah Malcomb). Meanwhile, three rich, eligible young women, the Schuyler sisters, arrive in New York in search of fiery revolutionary minds. Led by brilliant oldest sister Angelica (Ta’Rea Campbell), the trio of Angelica, Eliza (Stephanie Jae Park) and Peggy (Meecah, the press performance on April 13, but usually Paige Smallwood) Schuyler form a force to be reckoned with. During the Revolution, they become social center of the Revolutionary men’s world.
Both sets and costumes in Miranda’s musical are revoltionary. The musical uses a single two-level set, a wooden construction which suggests an old warehouse, a ship or working class tavern. The massive set wraps around the central stage. and has two movable staircases. Both levels are used throughout, aided by a few props.
Costumes are as creative as the stage framing set, suggesting the styles of the era rather than recreating them. Both men and women in the chorus wear cream-colored, booted outfits with matching corset tops for women and vests for men. Male actors in principal roles add tail coats of various colors for their characters, while the women wear dresses in signature colors, with pannier style skirts in the first act and in the second, high Empire-waisted looser skirts, while men switch to mostly velvet suits with knee pants. The really fancy period outfit in both acts, appropriately, is worn by King George, decked out in red, gold and ermine.
“Hamilton” covers a lot of history and time, with the first act focused on the Revolutionary War and the second on the founding of the new nation. It is a story packed with famous figures and famous events. The lyrics and rap dialog are packed with information and historical detail, as well as human insights on the characters. The musical demands performers with stage presence, who can both convey the character and speak clearly and slowly enough to convey that dense content.
The production at the Fox is one of at least three touring groups presenting “Hamilton,” with this being the “Phillip” one. It is a pretty good cast, although not as magical as the Broadway original, of course. which starred Lin-Manuel Miranda as Hamilton and Leslie Odom Jr. as Burr. However, Pierre Jean Gonzales does very well as Hamilton and has the required stage presence and strong voice to carry the role. Jared Dixon plays Aaron Burr with a bit too much restraint to properly counterbalance Hamilton in the first act, but stepped it up in the second act.
All the singing voices are strong. a highlight of this production, although there are times when the lyrics could have been cleared, although some of that might be due to the Fox’s sound system. Show highlights include the songs “My Shot,” “Ten Duel Commandments” and “The Room Where It Happens” in the second act. The comic standout, and rather a showstopper, was “You’ll Be Back,” sung by King George III.
Overall, the acting is good as well. Marcus Choi is marvelous as George Washington, one of the cast standouts. Some of the cast play dual or even multiple roles. Warren Egypt Franklin and Conroe Brooks play Lafayette and Mulligan, Hamilton’s inseparable allies in the first act, and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, still inseparable but now his insufferable adversaries in the second act. Franklin was another acting standout in both roles, but particularly fun as Jefferson. Where Hamilton was the brash young guy rubbing some people the wrong way in the first act, here the younger Jefferson does the same to the now-established Hamilton.
One of playwright Miranda’s most inspired ideas was making King George III the show’s comic relief. The King’s signature song, “You’ll Be Back,” is kind of a showstopper, a tongue-in-cheek “love song” in the style of ’60s pop. The part of the British monarch is designed to be played with farcical, campy style but Neil Haskell plays King George III a little too restrained in his first appearance, singing that catchy pop song, although he warms up to the mugging and comedy as the show goes on.
All in all, “Hamilton” is a riveting production the second time around, and a show not to be missed. “Hamilton” is on stage at the Fabulous Fox through May 1.
© Cate Marquis