Monday, March 13, 2017

Second Opinion: Is 'Hamilton' Just As Good on a Repeat Encounter? -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The PrivateBank Theatre, Chicago
Open Run
(previously reviewed here; also @@@@@)

On Tuesday, October 4, 2016, I saw Hamilton for the first time, at Chicago's PrivateBank (a.k.a. Shubert) Theatre.

This was after it became, on Broadway--where I did not get to see it--the hottest live entertainment phenomenon of which I have ever been aware, with its success based almost entirely on its brilliance (rather than big-name stars or a well-known title).

Sure, at a certain point, the hype and mania begat much more of it, but the musical written & composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda earned ravishing reviews, wonderful word-of-mouth, completely sold out houses and ridiculously expensive secondary market tickets as soon as it appeared Off-Broadway at New York's Public Theater in February 2015.

Hamilton would move to Broadway that July and win 11 Tony Awards in June 2016, with the Chicago run going on-sale rather soon thereafter. 

Fortunately, I was already promised a good seat for under $30 as part of my longtime Broadway in Chicago Balcony Club subscription. October 4 was the start of Hamilton's second week in Chicago, and technically still a preview performance.

The weight of anticipation was rather heavy--even more so more widely, with the Cubs about to begin a playoff run that ended joyously and the homestretch of a Presidential campaign that didn't.

That day, my mind was also occupied by a relative's transplant operation, which fortunately was reported to have gone well before I went to the theater.

So it is quite a testament to the quality of the show--and the casting and preparation of the Chicago production--that I found Hamilton to be every bit as good as it was purported to be.

In my rave review that soon followed, I bestowed @@@@@ and suggested that to get the most out of Hamilton, one should thoroughly familiarize themselves with the storyline, music, lyrics, historical references, hip-hop allusions and whatever else can be gleaned ahead of time (via Spotify,, Hamilton: The Revolution book, the Hamilton's America PBS documentary and YouTube, including rather enlightening interviews of Lin-Manuel Miranda by Emma Watson and the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones).

Certainly, this can diminish some of the real-time surprise of a first encounter with Hamilton, which is good enough to thoroughly enjoy without doing homework, but given the density of the lyrical references and the speed at which many are sung (or rapped), I believe some advance prep is beneficial.

Even before seeing Hamilton the first time, I imagined I would want to see it again (and, eventually, again and again).

I've occasionally entered the daily online $10 ticket lottery--to no avail--but last June when tickets for the first block of Chicago shows went on-sale and people were reporting being shut out, I randomly tried for a balcony seat (at the lowest price tier) for Saturday, March 11 at 2pm.

And I got one.

(Single seats can be a godsend, even for couples wishing to attend the same performance.)

So, unaware that I'd be riding the CTA downtown with a bunch of rowdy folks dressed in green--some with cans of beer in their hands--heading to St. Patrick's festivities, on Saturday I went to see Hamilton again. (I also stopped at the Art Institute of Chicago to see Whistler's Mother on loan from the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.)

And devoid of all the expectation and anticipation and--though it's still entirely sold out and exorbitantly priced on StubHub for the forseeable future--with a bit less theatergoing frenzy and commotion, I liked it just as much.

If not more.

In reality, there probably wasn't much substantial difference in the performances I saw, and nothing I had found deficient in October.

So I can't really say if back then the Chicago cast was more overtly trying to match the Broadway performances of Miranda (as Alexander Hamilton), Leslie Odom, Jr. (as Aaron Burr) and others, or if I was just more so comparing them to what I'd heard on the cast recording and seen on YouTube, etc.

But in one way or another, real or imagined, I sensed things were a bit freer this time around.

It's rather cliché to say, but the performers--including Miguel Cervantes (Hamilton), Ari Asfar (Eliza Hamilton), Karen Olivo (Angelica), Alexander Gemignani (King George), Jonathan Kirkland (George Washington) and Chris De'Sean Lee (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson)--seem to have settled more into their roles, and Chicago itself, without any need to look back or East.

Or perhaps I just stopped caring about comparisons and was able to even more so enjoy the immense talent at face value.

The one major cast change since October comes in the role of Aaron Burr, which is as significant as that of Hamilton. (Odom won the Tony for best actor in a musical over Miranda.)

Joshua Henry opened the role in Chicago, and was outstanding, but in January he moved onto the San Francisco production that has just now begun.

TV star Wayne Brady took over the role, slated until April 9, and was said to be rather good.

But he didn't perform Saturday afternoon, and a friend who turned out to also be in attendance said he'd heard Brady had several absences.

Whatever the case, an understudy named Jin Ha--who somewhat amazingly understudies Burr, Hamilton and King George--was outstanding.

If Brady is significantly better, I'm not sure how, and though it theoretically would have been nice to see him, I didn't acutely miss him.

Besides Hamilton proving itself to be a truly brilliant, groundbreaking musical that I was able to take in with a bit more tranquility, I was struck anew that sound-bytes denoting it as a "hip-hop musical" really shortchange its genius.

Yes, Miranda is a rap aficionado, and the way he tells the tale of an immigrant founding father with a modern soundscape and diverse cast is nothing short of brilliant.

But LMM is also deeply rooted in Broadway, and his first musical--In the Heights--was likewise daring, groundbreaking, fresh, Tony Award-winning and yet, like Hamilton, far more traditional than some may readily imagine.

The writer/composer/lyricist/star clearly learned from West Side Story, Les Miserables and other classics of the musical theater canon, and is said to have sought input from the legendary Stephen Sondheim while crafting Hamilton.

Hence, while the show's distinctiveness is largely defined within the first 15 minutes--with the rap-infused "Alexander Hamilton" and anthemic "My Shot"--its greatness is even more robustly reiterated by late-Act 2 ballads like "Burn" and "It's Quiet Uptown."

Karen Olivo (Angelica), collecting donations
post-show for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS

The diversity of Hamilton's almost entirely non-white cast may make more headlines, but it is the diversity of the show's nearly entirely sung-through score that really earmarks it as one of the best musicals of all-time.

Though The Producers remains my personal favorite, I've regularly cited Les Miz as the greatest work of musical theater ever created. (West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Cabaret and The Music Man are also up there.)

As I watched Hamilton, I was struck by similarities to Les Misérables, not just due to soldiers, swords and revolutions, but because of the way musical motifs keep reoccurring, but not too often.

And also due to the sheer depth of the score.

Like Les Miz, Hamilton runs nearly 3 full hours with almost no spoken dialogue. Though even by intermission, it's easy to imagine one has heard all of the great songs, more keep coming.

All the way to the (bittersweet) end.

Anyway, to answer my own question in the headline, "Yes," Hamilton is just as good a second time.

Perhaps even better.

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