For every generation, there are touchstones that stake their claim inside history books. Ironically, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap musical “Hamilton” not only centers around the most important touchstone of our nation’s history, but it’s also a touchstone for contemporary culture and musical theatre. I walked into the highly anticipated opening night of “Hamilton” at The Fisher Theatre in Detroit with mild hesitation: ‘Can one musical truly live up to all the hype surrounding it?’
The answer is yes.
Whether you’ve listened to the original cast recording thousands of times or followed the production since its early days at The Public Theater, nothing could prepare you for seeing the real thing. Watching the production unfold in real time under the direction of Thomas Kail, seeing the company add a masterfully crafted context to songs you thought you knew, every moment of “Hamilton” is better than the last.
While the national tour may not sport Lin-Manuel Miranda hamming it up as the titular character, or Leslie Odom Jr’s Tony Award winning Aaron Burr on the show’s first stop in Michigan, it does offer a cast of insanely talented professionals that still make “Hamilton” one of the most visceral theatre-going experiences in your lifetime. I would recommend this show to any non-theatregoer, as it offers a little something for everyone and could make a theatre fan of just about anybody.
Granted, tickets cost an arm and a leg (though you can test your luck with the daily lottery that sells 40 tickets at $10 apiece) – which undermines the message of inclusivity and accessibility that “Hamilton” (and most of Broadway) preaches; it’s insane to ask anyone to fork over upwards of $300-$600 for decent seats, and/or $175 just to be in the room where it happens. So, while you might have to mortgage your house to see the show, Edred Utomi’s Hamilton is all but worth it.
Better yet, “Hamilton” makes learning our nation's foundational history exciting and engaging with its infusion of hip-hop, rap, and R&B ballads that drive the narrative force. In doing this, “Hamilton” is also changing the landscape of how we view contemporary musical theatre. On the surface, this is a show about a group of young rebels molding the future of our country, and the flow and musicality of this beast manages to both educate and keep our feet tapping at the same time.
The show offers a roster of history’s greatest players including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, to name a few. Together, they’re waging war, amending a constitution, and debating the foundations of our economic infrastructure. All sporting Paul Tazwell’s stunning Colonial costume design that glistens from any angle on stage, figures like Bryson Bruce’s brilliant Marquis de Lafayette and Josh Tower’s brooding and excellent Aaron Burr are brought to new life.
On the surface, you’d expect this energetic ensemble that transforms the stage to different locals within moments to act like the stiffer, more rigid versions of the figures offered in your history books; but these actors don’t exactly resemble the statues of the men they’re inhabiting. For one, most of the leads are either African American or Hispanic, and they offer a crisp contemporary vernacular in their well-rehearsed music, not some boring historically accurate dialect. Plus, hearing raps regarding The Federalist Papers and seeing Paul Oakley Stovall encompass George Washington in one strong ballad after another somehow makes that decision relevant (especially the lyric: “Immigrants we get the job done!”); a striking chord as history often repeats itself.
In mixing a broad range of references and compacting about 80 years of history into two hours and 45 minutes, “Hamilton” brilliantly spotlightls what much of Broadway has been doing for years. Miranda not only channels the language of our youth, he brings forth a ravenous and ambitious approach that can’t be ignored. Turns out, Miranda’s approach seems to be the perfect voice in expressing the thoughts and drives of immigrants in American colonies who came together to forge their own nation. Indeed, just like the song professes, “Hamilton” is just like its country: young, scrappy, and hungry.
Those words, like many others in this entirely sung production, are perpetrated with a huff and a puff of seismic fluidity by Utomi as Hamilton, an orphan who has traveled to New York from St. Croix and proclaims he “won’t throw away his shot!” Though, that language might apply to most of the characters in the show: specifically Burr, Hamilton’s friend and nemesis who functions as a wondering narrator of the story desperately trying to climb the political ranks to finally be in the room where it happens.
Much like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, Burr is a full-fledged character with an arch that rivals Hamilton’s spotlight (I could argue that Burr is the lead character over Hamilton). These scrappy young lads are matched by three sexy women in Hamilton’s life, brought to vivid life by Hannah Cruz (as his wife, Eliza); Stephanie Umoh (as her sister, Angelica Schuyler), and Cherry Torres (as Maria Reynolds, the lover who thwarts Hamilton from his presidential prospects; the song “Say No To This” has never sounded better). Each female lead is blessed with an outstanding ballad that helps define this tumultuous love triangle and never slows down the show. (I dare you to not cry during Eliza’s heartbreaking “Burn”).
All those numbers have a breathless sense of urgency, and nearly all the score - directed and orchestrated with precise detail and rat-ta-tat energy by Alex Lacamoire - keeps the stylistic tunes (and production) moving freely. The show, for its nearly three-hour haul, never lags or loses momentum. And huge credit needs to be given to the ensemble moving elegantly in the background, giving further life to the course of human endeavors (the final sequence featuring the duel between Burr and Hamilton is one of the most outstanding choreographed moments you’ll ever witness). It also helps that scenic designer David Korins managed to implement the use of a revolving stage to create the illusion of how the world never stops spinning.
Director Thomas Kail does a flawless job of keeping the different flowing narratives moving briskly during the production, you might sit and feel like all these numbers have been amplified to accommodate the actor playing them, but the beauty of this show is that it never feels like someone is looking for a big musical hook. Each character is given several moments to shine and steal the spotlight - (including an obnoxious King George III (Peter Matthew Smith) who sings about the chaos happening overseas in a hilariously condescending way - however, some of his timing seems out of place in a narrative that never belongs to him) - the entire musical showcase allows (of all things) songs about being a political outsider (think “The Room Where It Happens”) to become a household name.
Granted, you probably already knew that “Hamilton” was the real deal, and it’s unlikely a bad review from me would’ve swayed you from seeing this nearly sold out production as it makes its way across the country. However, it’s nice to confirm that “Hamilton’ isn’t all guns and mirrors, but an honest musical about those who tell our history, relay our stories, and get to oversee the status quo. Since its inception in 2015, this passionate and near perfect musical has emboldened its young, scrappy, and adrenaline fueled fanbase to feel the hype of a nation being born. This is only the start of a modern theatre renaissance and history will have its eye on this moment for quite some time.
TICKETS FOR HAMILTON can by purchased through TICKETMASTER: The official ticketing partner of Broadway In Detroit. The production runs through April 21st at The Fisher Theatre in Detroit, MI.