By Bradley Rohlf
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” is one of the hottest tickets in any town. However, the day tickets went on sale for the national touring production at the Fox Theatre, neither my mother nor I were able to secure any. Determined to experience this show sooner than later, we decided to purchase tickets to the permanent tour housed a few hours north at the CIBC Theater in Chicago. Meanwhile, my roommate had procured tickets to the sold out show here in town, and graciously offered me one.
As fate would have it — because fate drives all outcomes theatre-related — the ticket in St. Louis was dated for April 19, and Chicago for April 20. I was now in the unique position to compare both shows back to back.
Both shows are essentially the same production. Browsing the credits page in the Playbill, one finds many of the same names in each. Direction, choreography, and design elements are uniform for both. The only differences between creative teams are music director, production stage manager, company manager, and dance supervisor – all roles that are required for the daily running of the show. The two primary differences are the individual cast members – and their respective interpretations, and the venue where the show is staged.
The Fabulous Fox Theatre is a St. Louis treasure. It is a beautifully restored historic building, and a testament to what we can accomplish when we invest in our community. However, compared to spaces that house similar shows, the former movie theater is enormous. Theaters on Broadway have between 500 and 2000 seats. The Fox has a capacity of 4,500. For reference, the main stage at the Repertory Theatre St. Louis has a capacity of 763, Powell Hall has 2,683, and The Muny outdoor amphitheater seats 11,000.
What this boils down to is the challenge of creating the same audience experience in a room three to four times larger than the space it was originally designed for. So much of a show’s energy can be lost to the space of the room. If the show can’t overcome that, audiences are often left not fully experiencing the performance, but rather just seeing it happen over there.
Thankfully, “Hamilton” is the type of show with the potential to overcome this obstacle, but did it succeed? Mostly. Many friends posting about their attendance on social media made a comment about being “in the room where it happens.”
While the effect was not as extreme, I couldn’t help but think about merely occupying a shared space, as opposed to truly experiencing the show. I was never distracted or disengaged, but compared to other live theatrical experiences and time spent listening to the original cast recording, I wanted more. I wanted more of an emotional impact, more of an overwhelming spectacle, and overall more ‘oomph.’ No part of the production design or company performances left me any reason to be disappointed, so the only fault I can point to is the technical challenge of mounting this show in such a cavernous space.
I sat in roughly the same position for both shows: off-center, midway back on the mezzanine level. But in Chicago’s 1,800-seat CIBC Theatre, that placement put me significantly closer to the action. I was closer to the emotion on actors’ faces, closer to the vibrations of the orchestra, closer to the heat of the dancers. Sound and light take time to travel, and the closer you are to the action of any show, the closer you are to the immediate moment of creation. The most successful productions I have seen are particularly attuned to the space they inhabit.
One thing I wasn’t expecting at the CIBC was that there was a concession vendor walking the aisles pre-show and at intermission. I don’t believe I’ve seen this in an indoor theater before. Also, his selection was limited to bottled water and Twizzlers. I appreciate how this tactic can reduce lines in the lobby, but nevertheless, I found it odd.
After first encountering the original cast recording, I continuously devoured it. It became my transit soundtrack for several months. Having such a close personal relationship with the album, I was surprised at myself when I saw the live show. Not once did I compare the actor on stage to their counterpart on the cast album. I can only attribute this to the thoughtfulness these performers bring to interpreting their characters.
The show on Thursday at the Fox had no cast substitutions, and Friday at CIBC only the role of Samuel Seabury was substituted. As a whole, I preferred the performance I saw of the Chicago cast to the national tour, if only by a small margin.
As a small ensemble, the Sons of Liberty (Lafayette, Mulligan, and Laurens) felt much more like a cohesive unit in Chicago. Colby Lewis, Wallace Smith, and José Ramos could have passed for a group of young emcees trying to make their break. Add the chemistry those three had with Miguel Cervantes’ Hamilton and Gregory Treco’s Burr, and you could assemble a believable N.W.A cover group.
On the other hand, Eliza and Angelica in St. Louis (Julia K. Harriman and Sabrina Sloan) gave significantly stronger vocal performances than their Chicago counterparts (Jamila Sabares-Klemm and Montego Glover). Everyone was worthy, and no less engaging, but purely musically, Harriman and Sloan’s performances were far superior.
Both Alexander Hamiltons and Aaron Burrs focused on different elements of their characters, and brought their own swagger to each role. In addition to their individual character, both pairs had fully developed and distinct relationships to the other. In Chicago, Cervantes leaned into the youthful impulsivity of Hamilton, while Treco as Burr, significantly larger in stature to Cervantes, plays the foil as a mature and forceful rival and sometimes mentor. In the national touring cast, Austin Scott embodies more of Hamilton’s thoughtful and determined side. Nicholas Christopher plays a no less ambitious Burr, and achieves that elusive balance of slightly smarmy, yet still charming.
In addition to playing the titular character’s rival and foil, Burr also serves as Greek chorus for the show. Even in this aspect, both actors made distinct choices that were equally effective. Treco as narrator is initially warm and inviting, a helpful guide to the social, political, and economic situations at hand. As the story progresses, he expertly blends this with Aaron Burr’s simmering frustrations under the surface. Christopher plays more P.T. Barnum to Treco’s history professor. He ushers us into each waypoint of the show not merely because it’s interesting, but because it’s exciting.
In general I preferred the national tour’s Chris De’Sean Lee as Jefferson to the Chicago tour’s Colby Lewis. And I liked Andrew Call’s take on King George in Chicago just a little more than the portrayal by Peter Matthew Smith in St. Louis.
So, if you missed it this time around you have a few options. You can continue to listen to the cast album and use your imagination to fill in the staging. If you have the means, you can travel to see it in New York. However, it was recently announced that the national tour will return to the Fox in the 2019-20 U.S. Bank Broadway series, but if you’re not willing to wait for it, there’s still Chicago.