What do you write about a play that has been so written about, talked about, dissected, analyzed and been christened as the Big Theatrical Thing? We’re talking, of course, about Hamilton, the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical that is an international sensation. It entered the American political conversation after Vice President Mike Pence attended a show in New York and was, depending on your persuasion, either lectured or appealed to by the cast from the stage after the show. It has won nearly every award imaginable and is grossing nearly $2 million per week on its sold-out show on Broadway and multiple touring versions.
Well, for starters, the show, which is currently in Orange County as part of its second concurrent national tour, is stupendous. And it’s long, clocking in at about 2 hours 45 minutes. There’s equal parts American history 101 and genre-shattering musical, with colorblind casting, a hip-hop-inflected score and boisterous enthusiasm. It’s both a celebration and castigation of America, revealing the heart of our collective experiment in American democracy while shining a light on some of its darker passages.
The play, really, is a biopic of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s seminal Founding Fathers (and the guy on the $10 bill), a figure who advocated for a strong national government and central bank who long since lost the battle in the court of public opinion to his primary opponent, Thomas Jefferson, but whose writings and intellect did as much to shape the founding of the country and lay its ultimate blueprint as anyone.
The musical touches upon all that, but it also humanizes Hamilton, an immigrant born and raised in the Caribbean, whose mother may have been of mixed race and who was (although this is a matter of intense historical controversy) an outspoken public abolitionist. The conscious decision to cast so many of the roles in hues of color (Hamilton is played by Joseph Morales, whom one surmises is Latino; George Washington is played by Marcus Choi, an Asian; Aaron Burr is played by Nik Walker, an African-American; and Jefferson is played by Kyle Scatliffe, another African-American) elevates the conversation about the perennial thorn that has been in the side of America since before its inception: race. For one of the few times in an incredibly popular piece of commercial entertainment, people of color are mainly telling the story of America’s foundation, no longer relegated to the background or depicted as heroic martyrs. (Interestingly, the character who comes off the worst in the play, King George, is played by one of the few white faces among the 38-member cast, Jon Patrick Walker.)
It’s not a perfect show. There’s a lack of memorable songs and too much focus on Hamilton’s complicated love life. Married to one sister but deeply in love with another, he strays from his wife and is blackmailed; this sub-plot is important for the narrative, as it leads to his opponents (Burr, Jefferson and James Madison) to pretty much ostracize him from the reigning political conversation, but the show lingers too long on it. The love triangle between Hamilton and the two sisters is particularly focused on, and the show’s incredible momentum, which is mostly kept through the entire proceedings, does feel hamstrung at times. The play could easily lose those 20 minutes and be even stronger for its absence.
But the cast and production values are top-notch. Anyone who can actually get and afford a ticket (this thing has been sold out for months) or who passes on the assumption that the talent of a nationally touring production must be second-rate and pale in comparison with original productions is simply wrong. Morales’ Hamilton and Nik Walker’s Burr, who are the Mozart and Salieri of this piece, are particularly impressive, imbuing their characters with complexity and depth while also just being a joy to watch. But there is not a weak link in the entire ensemble. Jon Patrick Walker, Scatliffe and Fergie L. Philippe (as Madison) do the best they can with their underwritten roles; if there is a weal link in the impressive chain that Miranda created it’s the over-the-top bumbling of their characters. These three do supply comic relief, but their characters are not given justice, and nothing in Thomas Kail’s staging salvages them.
The play is ultimately about storytelling and the monuments we leave behind, whether they are children, buildings, financial systems or moments of infamy. After Hamilton’s fateful duel with Burr, the cast assembles, and Washington reminds the audience that no one gets to choose how they are remembered. And that parallels the oft-cited line that history is written by the victors. The fact that Hamilton was written and performed by people who all too often have not been the victors in the American story is one reason this show is so goddamn electrifying, important and memorable.
Hamilton at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787; www.scfta.org. Tues.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 1 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. Through May 27. $80.75-$740.75—but good luck finding a ticket.
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???