It was a tough call in Chicago last night. Watch the Cubbies’ bats finally come alive against the Dodgers, or the mudslinging of the third (and all praise, final) Presidential debate? In other words, America’s favorite pastime, or a game with much bigger stakes?
Happily, a third choice presented itself: I scored two press tickets to “Hamilton,” which celebrated its official Chicago opening night at The Private Bank Theatre. And guess what? It was amazing. But you probably already knew that, as the first six months of tickets sold out in a flash, and the second block — released in late September — is virtually history (as it were), unless you’re looking on the secondary market.
“Hamilton” started out as an unlikely musical (a hip-hop musical about the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury? Really?), but it has become a phenomenon, with rabid fans spanning the continuum from every musical theater kid ever born to Beyoncé and Obama. The announcement that producer Jeffrey Seller and Broadway in Chicago had teamed up to bring an open-ended production of the show to our fair city was a financial windfall far out-strapping Chicago’s Olympic dreams.
After cleaning up earlier this year with 11 Tony Awards, a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album and a Pulitzer for composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, it was clear there was going to be demand for this iteration. The big question was how would the show stack up against Broadway? Having now seen both the original and the Chicago cast in action, I can say unequivocally, pretty damn well. This groundbreaking American musical bears repeated viewings, and though the original cast was spectacular, this version was equally thrilling.
David Korins’ original scenic design remains intact — though the stage at the Private Bank Theatre seems more expansive than its original Broadway setting — as does the well-conceived costume design by Paul Tazewell, the ensemble clad in all-cream attire, from leggings to vests, pulling on the occasional red coat or Union blue as they assume their fighting stances in service of the story.
About the movement: The choreography, by Andy Blankenbuehler, is extraordinary. It feels at once organic and beautifully staged, all hip-hop agitation and hard hitting, but also, at times, achingly lyrical. It truly embodies Miranda’s music, and blends seamlessly with director Thomas Kail’s assured staging.
The story, inspired by Ron Chernow’s hefty 2004 tome “Alexander Hamilton,” examines the classic rivalry of Hamilton and Aaron Burr. It’s a side of American revolutionary history that you don’t often see; we all learned about the Hamilton-Burr duel, and its outcome, but what was the genesis of their beef? Miranda lays it out, chapter and verse, in a way that is eminently approachable for the history-averse.
Kudos to sound designer Nevin Steinberg; each time I’ve seen the show I’ve been able to understand every word — and you won’t want to miss a single one, given the multiple Easter eggs that Miranda has hidden within the script. There are myriad references to classic musicals, hip-hop, current politics and other seminal moments in American culture. All praise as well to Alex Lacamoire, Miranda’s long-time orchestrator and musical partner. This is truly a work of art.
Since I first saw the show last summer, I’ve said that this is a piece that to some extent transcends its cast members. The music and the story are just that compelling. Yet the piece is so closely associated with the original cast by the legion of “Hamilton” obsessives who have had the cast album on repeat since it was released last fall (no judging here; I’m listening to it as I write), and super fans will worry. Fear not, friends.
As Hamilton, Miguel Cervantes loses himself in the role in all the best ways. To my mind, he’s less showy than Miranda, but boasts the superior voice. He captures the immigrant who rose to unimaginable power and prestige purely on merit (as he says with Lafayette, “Immigrants, we get the job done!” Take that, Donald Trump!) I felt a real connection between him and the beautiful Schuyler sisters, devoted wife Eliza (Ari Afsar) and confidante Angelica (Karen Oliva), especially in the heartbreaking “Satisfied” and “It’s Quiet Uptown.” Both women have lovely voices, capable of both ache and power as warranted. The third Schuyler sister, who “Hamilton” fans refer to as “and Peggy” (Samantha Marie Ware), also takes on the thankless role of the temptress Maria Reynolds, who contributes to Hamilton’s moral downfall, but she sings the hell out of the part and is totally believable as the much-abused Reynolds.
Chicago’s Burr is played by the vastly talented Joshua Henry in a star-making turn. What a voice! He brings down the house on “Wait for It” and “The Room Where It Happens,” two of my favorite numbers in the show. He nails the full palette of Burr’s temperament — the sardonic wit, the need for self-preservation, the yearning to prove his worth.
I did a double-take when reading Chris De’Sean Lee’s Playbill bio; he has just completed his junior year of college and this is his big break, said without hyperbole. In the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, he slays. How does a kid that young have such poise? Such musical and comic chops? He raps and sings with equal aplomb. Another breakout star is born.
Jonathan Kirkland is properly imposing as General George Washington; he literally towers over everyone on stage, which I’m sure was a casting note, and José Ramos, as Hamilton’s close friend and compatriot John Laurens and his son, Philip Hamilton, displays a beautiful tenor. Wallace Smith (as Hercules Mulligan and James Madison) moves nimbly on stage and ably creates two entirely different characters, a brash ladies’ man and an asthma-riddled statesman.
No review would be complete without a mention of the delicious portrayal of King George by Alexander Gemignani, a composer/lyricist in his own right. His King was spot-on, all camp and bluster. The threatening lyrics of “You’ll Be Back,” set to music that recalled the British Invasion pop of Herman’s Hermits, are spat with gusto and glee: “I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love, da da da dat da…” His timing is epic.
As the Chicago cast settles in to what will surely be a very long run — it’s already booked through September 2017, and Sellers and Miranda assured the crowd last night that they “will stay as long as you buy tickets” — here’s to the continuation of the American dream, and the next generation of the American musical. Long may it wave.
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