Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Masterpiece Theater: Taking Its Shot in Chicago, 'Hamilton' Is Historically Brilliant -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

PrivateBank Theatre, Chicago
Open run

Should you or shouldn't you?

By all means, yes.

Which isn't acutely to reference the question of whether you should see Hamilton--officially subtitled An American Musical--now running in Chicago, as well as New York, for the foreseeable future.

That to me is a given--if and when you can get an affordable ticket--whether you are a fan of Broadway musicals, popular music, hip-hop, American history, artistic ingenuity, cultural touchstones or any combination thereof.

Obviously I'm not the first to suggest this, given the unprecedented success of Hamilton, including 11 Tony Awards (from a record 16 nominations) and stratospheric ticket scalping, but Lin-Manuel Miranda has created a masterpiece that--with due respect for Rent, Mamma Mia, Spring Awakening, his own In the Heights and others--has revolutionized the musical theater soundscape.

Photo credit on all: David Korins
Responsible for the show's book, music & lyrics--and originating the title role--Miranda fused his love of rap with a deep embrace of the musical art form (and other pop/high culture, literature, television and more) to create a score that is urgently and transcendently contemporary while masterfully respecting the traditions of the idiom. (i.e. Shorthand references to Hamilton as a "hip hop musical" shortchange the breadth of its brilliance.)

And while there have long been biographical and/or historical musicals--Fiorello, 1776Evita, Les Miserables, Jersey Boys, Beautiful, etc., etc.--I don't think any have as acutely or adroitly provided academically sound insights (albeit with a few creative liberties) into a famous name but relatively obscure figure as Miranda and Co. have done here, based on Ron Chernow's 2004 Alexander Hamilton biography.

So yes, I have become a full-fledged Hamilton acolyte, don't think any of the hype is overstated--even if the ticketing frenzy and aftermarket pricing seems over-the-top--and, without having seen the show on Broadway, found the Chicago rendition completely sublime, with the only possible diminution being a few instances of vocal timbres not quite equalling those on the original cast recording.

Which gets me to the actual gist of my opening question:

Should you listen to the album, read the lyrics and otherwise well-acquaint yourself with Hamilton before heading to see it? (As opposed to going the hottest show in history, cold.)

I certainly understand the notion of wanting to be fully surprised by a fresh first encounter at the theater, and especially as Hamilton is almost entirely sung-through, with virtually no dialogue beyond the songs, thorough pre-show familiarization would negate that.

And I have to assume that not everyone delivering an instant standing ovation at the packed PrivateBank Theatre on Wednesday night had wholly ingested the cast recording, let alone studied the lyrics and annotations about them--on the album website and within the excellent Hamilton: The Revolution book by Miranda and Jeremy McCarter.

I myself won't profess to having read Chernow's 832-page Hamilton biography--which Miranda famously chose as vacation reading, bringing rather historic inspiration--nor knowing many of the rap songs or even artists the composer slyly references in the show's lyrics.

Much as there are myriad fans who have loved Hamilton: An American Musical largely uninitiated on a first theatrical encounter, there are undoubtedly many who have enjoyed, devoured and savored the musical far more deeply and holistically than I have to this point, even after I finally! got to see it (early in the Chicago run, where it's officially still in previews, thanks to being a longstanding Broadway in Chicago subscriber).

But while one should presumably find Hamilton fantastic simply as a night of theater--directed by Thomas Kail, with terrific choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, the show is phenomenally entertaining, never a dreary history lecture--its genius goes well beyond the surface.

So while noting the inherent sacrifice of some unsuspecting, in-your-seat awe, I would strongly recommend doing some homework in order to more richly experience what well may be the greatest artistic accomplishment of the 21st Century to date.

With a considerable amount of rapping, Hamilton contains a whole lot of words--and clever rhymes--and they come at you quite rapidly. Hence, buying the cast album or listening on Spotify, and reading through the entire lyrics at least once will undoubtedly aid comprehension.

Digesting the lyrics will likely lead you to Wikipedia to explore entries on Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Marquis de Lafayette and others chronicled in the show, as well some of the key Revolutionary War battles mentioned, including those at Monmouth and Yorktown. This should also be beneficial.

You would do well to look up reviews and articles on the show from its initial Off-Broadway run, and then on Broadway, to better understand the genesis and better grasp what Miranda is trying to express and convey, notably in his decision to cast individuals of color as the American founding fathers.

I also liked perusing the lyric annotations, exploring citations about lyrical & musical allusions/references--not only to rap songs & artists, but South Pacific, Gilbert & Sullivan, The Beatles and more--and learning more about Miranda's influences (in general and specifically for Hamilton), plus advice & encouragement he received from Stephen Sondheim, John Weidman, John Kander, Paul McCartney and numerous hip-hop legends.

A little Googling should go a long way, along with the references mentioned above.

And especially for those in the Chicago area, checking out a fine local production of In the Heights, the first Tony-winning musical that Lin-Manuel Miranda created, should also aid your appreciation for his vast talents and the road to & though Hamilton.

Now, at this point, you might be thinking that all of this probably belongs in its own blog article, not in what purports to be a review of Hamilton based on my seeing it on Wednesday night.

But I believe it beneficial to explain how the brief study--only over the last few weeks--I brought into my first live encounter with Hamilton helped me to love it as deeply as I did, while suggesting that something akin could considerably abet your appreciation.

If nothing else, note the double meaning of the "I'm not throwing away my shot" refrain of the show's anthem "My Shot," which Alexander Hamilton sings early in Act I.

And realize that as much as being about its title character, the musical chronicles Aaron Burr--initially Hamilton's friend and ultimately his nemesis--and Alexander's wife, Eliza, as well as her similarly-smitten sister, Angelica.

On Broadway, Leslie Odom Jr., who played Burr, won the Tony Award over Miranda as Hamilton, and in Chicago, I found Joshua Henry as Burr to slightly outshine Miguel Cervantes in the title role.

This isn't to suggest that Cervantes isn't terrific--and given his legendary literary name, I wish Miranda had snuck in a Man of La Mancha homage for the Chicago production--but his singing voice and persona didn't quite match the edge of the original (based on the cast album and YouTube clips from the Tonys, Grammys and elsewhere).

Likewise, while I have nothing but plaudits for Chris De'Sean Lee, a college student who wonderfully handles the rapid-fire rapping of both the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, he's just a smidgen below Daveed Diggs from Broadway.

But compared to the overall majesty of Hamilton, these are trivial triflings, and you can comfortably know that Chicago is getting the full-octane treatment.

Ali Asfar and Tony winner Karen Olivo are sublime as Eliza and Angelica Schuyler, whose wonderful takes on songs such as "The Schuyler Sisters," "Helpless," "Satisfied," "Take a Break" and "The Quiet Uptown" delightfully demonstrate the stylistic range and depth of Hamilton's score, which goes well beyond rap.

And while I was wary whether anyone could match the drollness Jonathan Groff brought to the cast
recording as King George on "You'll Be Back" and two complementary British Invasion-infused songs, Broadway vet Alexander Gemignani is a sheer delight.

I could continue to name standout songs and performances--Jonathan Kirkland (George Washington), José Ramos (John Laurens/Phillip Hamilton) and Wallace Smith (Hercules Mulligan/James Madison) merit mention--but I found every moment in Hamilton quite astonishing, and it's not merely dropping a pun (Miranda clearly loves them too) to call it historically brilliant.

(Set designer David Korins, whose Instagram photos I've gleaned, also deserves an emphatic shout out.)

Especially given the familiarity I acquired before arriving at the PrivateBank Theatre, the show felt like encountering an old friend who becomes a new love.

So while I don't advise taking out a second mortgage or selling a child--if need be, wait awhile for demand to drop while trying the digital lottery for $10 (a Hamilton, get it?) day-of-show tickets--I can't recommend Hamilton any more highly.

Having enjoyed an unforgettable evening, I'm already looking forward to the next time I see it. (I have a ticket for March).

After I learn a good bit more. 

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