Note: Portions of this review were shared immediately post-show April 4 on Facebook and on KTRS’s “All Access with Jay Kanzler” April 5.
By Lynn Venhaus
How lucky we are to be alive right now, to be able to experience the cultural phenomenon that is “Hamilton.”
You might have seen snippets on television or heard the soundtrack, but that’s merely a teaser to the total sensory package Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece is about the Founding Fathers.
As a live theatrical experience, it’s gobsmacking. The words, music, performances and technical elements create this unforgettable brilliance that will leave you in awe, forever changed by its creative force and everlasting impact.
Let’s start with how bona fide genius Miranda was inspired by the Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton enough to make him the centerpiece of a hopeful reflection on America as a “great unfinished symphony.”
The mostly sung epic is about a “young, scrappy and hungry” penniless orphaned immigrant from the West Indies whose gift was his ability to communicate through the written word and public speaking. How that propelled him to be a force in our nation’s founding and our system of government is riveting.
That he’s George Washington’s right-hand man, and how he interacts with Aaron Burr, a political rival, future vice president and his killer, is fascinating, too.
Driven, ambitious, smart and a self-starter, Hamilton embodied the revolutionary spirit that believed in The American Experiment. But his flaws as well as his fears, desires and regrets, are on display, too.
What makes this musical so compelling is the recurring themes – Hamilton was a man of action while Burr was more cautious, and neither man thought the other was principled.
From its opening number, the winner of 11 Tony Awards exceeded my already high expectations. As its innovative storytelling seamlessly unfolded, it increased in breadth and scope.
On this first national tour, the Fox Theatre in St. Louis is the second largest house it will play (the Atlanta Fox topping it, 4678 to our 4500), the stage about five times bigger than its Broadway home, the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
On the second night of its 20-day stop here, the thunderous ovation at curtain call just might have been the longest and loudest one I’ve ever heard at The Fox, and I’ve been going there for theater since its renovations and reopening in 1982. (Yul Brynner in “The King and I” in 1985 might have come close.)
Since “Hamilton” debuted off-Broadway Jan. 20, 2015, at The Public Theatre in New York City, the musical was anointed a game-changer, and its ground-breaking elements cannot be understated.
The show’s still a smash on Broadway and in Chicago, and a second national tour recently began. Miranda will star in a production in Puerto Rico in January 2019. “Hamilton” won’t be going away any time soon.
I want to see this emotional explosion of vibrant sight and sound again and again, especially if it’s going to be as passionately presented.
The care and skill they’ve taken for the national tour is evident. It doesn’t matter that there are no stars. The performers all bring their A game: a lithe Austin Scott effectively anchors the show as Hamilton, while explosive Nathan Christopher has the power for Burr. Though diminutive, Chris De’Sean Lee is dynamic as both Lafayette and Jefferson, and Julie K. Harriman and Sabrina Sloan display their impressive ranges as Eliza and Angelica Schuyler.
Other standouts include Carvens Lissaint, strong as Washington, and Peter Matthew Smith scene-stealing as King George. Also noteworthy is Ruben J. Carbajal as both John Laurens and Philip Hamilton. Enthusiastic Chaundre Broomfield-Hall has a mighty oomph behind his vocals.
Some of the performers have appeared in productions of the Tony-winning “In the Heights,” so they know how to Miranda-speak, and their enunciation was superb.
Miranda’s verbal dexterity, ability to condense and rhyme history, and make it accessible, is remarkable. (Side note: He wrote the lyrics for the under-appreciated “Bring It On: The Musical,” which Fox Theatricals produced).
His smackdown on state’s rights vs. federal power, “Cabinet Battle 1 and 2,” makes you wish the legislative branch operated like this. And should be standard now for all history classes.
While much has been made of hip-hop used to convey history, the score is a blend of different styles, including jazz, blues, rap, R&B and Broadway. The hip-hop gives it a freshness, an urgency and a unique rhythm. The harmonies throughout are exquisite.
Breathtaking ballads – Aaron Burr’s signature “Wait for It” may be Miranda’s best song yet, and the aching “It’s Quiet Uptown” and heartbreaking “Burn” provide emotional depth. “The Story of Tonight” resonates with contemporary times. (“Tomorrow there will be more of us.)
Highlights also include the charming introduction of “The Schuyler Sisters,” who play an integral part of Hamilton’s personal life, in Beyonce beats, and King George III’s catty break-up song “You’ll Be Back” is in the style of a British Invasion pop song.
Song titles and repetitive phrases are woven throughout in fragmented ways: “My Shot,” “The World Turned Upside Down,” “Who Lives Who Dies Who Gets to Tell Your Story,” “How Lucky We Are to Be Alive Right Now,” “The Room Where It Happens,” “Rise Up” and so forth. They have become part of the fabric, now ‘catch phrases,’ and you will never get them out of your head.
The orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire, with arrangements by Lacamoire and Miranda, are a key factor in the score’s rich texture and staying power.
Enhancing the effect is Andy Blankenbuehler’s imaginative choreography. The performers are seemingly non-stop, as movement matters, punctuating the action, and creating this mesmerizing diorama.
Special shout-outs to St. Louisan Yvette Lu, who is a swing, and Sean Harrison Jones, who has appeared at the Muny before, recently as Mike in “A Chorus Line” and in “Newsies” last year, who is part of the ensemble.
“Hamilton” is a vivid portrait of an infant country that resonates in America today, imbued with Miranda’s optimism about what can be achieved, because look at where we started and what we’ve overcome.
Its synergy is a thing of beauty. The grand and glorious work courses with electricity, wit and the words to make us better people – and citizens. With its infectious beats, in the words of Walt Whitman, “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear…each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else…singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.”
The national tour of “Hamilton” is at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis April 3-22. For more information, visit www.fabulousfox.com and for tickets, www.metrotix.com. More tickets are released daily.