Raise a Glass to ‘Hamilton’ and Take a Shot at Seeing it at The Bushnell

hamilton

Credit: The Bushnell

On Wednesday I was finally in the room where it happens — Hamilton at The Bushnell in Hartford — and it was glorious.

I have had my eyes on Hamilton for two years. It’s Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap-centric, Tony Award-winning musical about the rise and fall of founding father Alexander Hamilton, inspired by historian Ron Chernow’s book by that name. Having listened to the original Broadway cast soundtrack hundreds of times on a loop in my car, I was beginning to think it would never happen. An unrequited love I would never see in person. So I can relate to Aaron Burr there.

With tickets often priced at $600 and up, it began to seem like an exclusive club that I would never be able to afford. Yet, one by one, I’d see friends and acquaintances post the standard Facebook photo with their playbill at one theater or another where they were seeing my prized Hamilton. Soon the exclusive club seemed to be admitting everyone I knew but me. When would I get my shot?

I waited for it. Then on Tuesday, the unthinkable happened. The Bushnell invited me to come review the show after a press cancellation. Press tickets to Hamilton! An unheard of, rare opportunity. “I do, I do, I do!” I scrambled to rearrange my work schedule. An understanding coworker raced over to switch shifts with me upon hearing my news.

After driving through two and a half hours of stop and go traffic from Boston, I was finally, finally going to see my beloved Hamilton. I hugged the communications director when he handed me and my mom our tickets.

Once we passed through metal detectors at a newly implemented security checkpoint for this highly attended, edgy, controversial show, I was star-struck just upon seeing the open two-tier wooden set. Next thing I knew, King George III himself was welcoming us to “his” show, the British were coming, and I was ready. So ready.

When you’ve only listened to a Broadway show, you can only imagine what is happening on stage. The costumes, the set, the lighting, and the actors’ physicality, expressions, and choices are all just a picture you orchestrate in your head. You are the director of your mind’s eye. I was worried I had built this play up so much that it would be a letdown. Maybe it was overhyped.

But let me tell you, seeing Hamilton left me more than satisfied. Experiencing it visually only adds to founding musical father Miranda’s monumental songs, lyrics, and witty wordsmithing. This play covers so much content. It’s a lot to absorb – from the American Revolutionary War in Act I to the architecture of our great nation after the war in Act II.

We see Hamilton, “a bastard orphan son of a whore,” help win a war and independence, get Washington on his side, serve as the president’s right-hand man, marry rich to Schuyler sister Eliza, found the national banks, create a financial plan as treasury secretary, write The Federalist Papers and much more, duke it out with Burr, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams, have an affair, get extorted, get fired, lose his son in a duel, and finally die in a duel of his own. Never has history seemed so cool. I wonder if Alexander Hamilton himself ever would have thought he’d ever be this hip centuries later. I have learned more from this show than I probably ever have from my history books. That is the beauty of art.

While it wasn’t the original Broadway cast I’ve grown familiar with on the CD and there were some technical sound glitches with the opening track and Eliza’s microphone cutting out briefly later on, this show blew me and the audience all away. Man is this cast nonstop! They certainly get the job done.

Lauded for typically having a diverse cast, a site not historically seen on Broadway, Hamilton proudly carries the tagline: “America then portrayed by America now.”

The two-level set adds another layer of intensity to the production value and the ensemble of contemporary, hip-hop dancers breathes life into the Revolutionary War era republic. They are ornaments to the artistic design and are every bit as important as the principals. Their dynamic, precise and accented yet elegant movements coupled with their harmonic, powerful choruses are captivating in nearly every song from “Alexander Hamilton” and “My Shot” in the beginning to the wedding, Ten Duel Commandments, and battle sequences. Their choreography really boosts the narrative. It’s hard to know what to look at because there are so many interesting things going on. If you look away for a second you could miss quick nuances from a mimicking gesture to a subtle comedic interjection.

The dancers mostly wear tasteful, nude-colored period corsets, cutoffs, and leggings. History stripped down. You also see them in Red Coats and American military uniforms.

The ensemble even personifies Burr’s bullet that is destined to kill Hamilton in the final duel sequence. One actress is crowd-surfed gracefully through the air in a dreamlike, slow-motion sequence. She practically floats across the spinning center stage, a feature that adds pace to the show, until that fateful moment when the bullet fatally punctures Hamilton.

And who is Alexander Hamilton, if not Lin-Manuel? Austin Scot plays our handsome title character with a likeable confidence and arguably smoother, clearer vocals. He comes off as more driven than arrogant. His bio doesn’t list any Broadway experience per se, but he deserves a shot after this phenomenal performance.

His mic drop when John Adams fires him, backlit in smoky red is epic.

Josh Tower plays the ultimate frenemy in Burr, always seeming to have his hands calculatingly on the marionette strings, but not actually picked to play in most of the games. His voice rests back in his throat with high-pitched strain as his character fights to be in the room where it happens. It’s a rarity that the villain is also our guide and narrator. Perhaps it works because we don’t see him as all evil and there are some underdog qualities in him that resonate with anyone fighting for a dream. It’s a love-hate relationship.

The Schuyler sisters and worked it, particularly in their introductory song.

Stephanie Umoh is spunky as the eldest Schuyler sister and we feel for her in sacrificing her love for Hamilton for her sister’s happiness.

Hannah Cruz dons stylish, period curls on half her head and an edgy, shaved look on the other as Hamilton’s wife, Eliza Schuyler, blending upper class elegance with posh, contemporary fashion. Her voice is a fluttery, sweet delight, impressively controlled and powerful even when singing grittily through anguish and tears in “Burn” when she finds out about her husband’s affair.

Speaking of the sordid affair, highlights! Isa Briones was sultry yet gentle as Maria Reynolds, the married woman who seduces Hamilton to her bed. For a sex scene, it surprised me that there was very little physicality and sensuality at all in the action. The actors barely touch. You don’t see the affair beyond a sweet, passionate kiss. It relies instead on Hamilton’s narrative and the poetic lyricism of the music to tell that story. It wasn’t much different from listening to the original cast recording, but was musically well done.

Briones’ voice is alluring and clean, tangoing smoothly with gusto in flawless pop vocal licks and riffs. It’s a fleeting but memorable part with one of the most appealing female solos in the show.

And Peggy. She also plays the scarce appearances of the youngest Schuyler sister well, punctuating her lines with sarcasm, humor and innocence. We don’t even learn she dies, she just disappears from the plot, but we definitely remember her.

One of the few musical moments omitted from the soundtrack is the interlude about Hamilton’s best friend John Laurens’ death by gunfire postwar in a very brief scene at the end of Act I. It was endearing and visually necessary to transition us into seeing that actor, Jon Viktor Corpuz, play Hamilton’s son Philip in Act II.

Corpuz is vocal silk and suave as both characters. The frequent double casting in the show in a sense lets personalities be reborn, as nations carry on historically once individuals pass on. It’s precious seeing an adult play a 9-year-old child as a caricature of sorts. Adult perspective adds humor to the world of a child. We see Philip grow into a college graduate – in demeanor if not through stature.

We never see Hamilton’s daughter though, although she is referenced in Philip’s rhymes for his father on his birthday.

Bryson Bruce is tactical, comical brilliance as the French Marquis de Lafayette in Act I and Francophile Thomas Jefferson, who doesn’t enter the narrative until the goofy, joyous “What Did I Miss?” song and dance in Act II. He pours quirky energy into both his characters. You respect Lafayette more, but you appreciate Jefferson’s quips and quid pro quo. Bruce spins his verse rapid-fire as Lafayette, all while maintaining a French accent, in “Guns and Ships,” which is one of the fastest songs in Broadway history. Tony-nominated Daveed Diggs, who played Lafayette in the original cast, spit out 19 words in just 3 seconds in that song.

Any dialogue in the show was built into the rap that runs fluidly throughout the show, but it was easy to understand because the actors annunciated and articulated the words really clearly.

Chandre Hall-Broomfield is playful as Hercules Mulligan, getting a lot of laughs when he presents his leg as Hamilton calls Lafayette’s pants hot. He doubles as James Madison, who he portrays as a snotty, sneezy germophobe, carrying his handkerchief around like Linus from Peanuts. He and Bruce are the dynamic duo of comedy in Act II.

The rap battle cabinet meetings between Bruce as Jefferson and Scott as Hamilton, each holding microphones like they’re performing, are a particularly clever and entertaining commentary on today’s political divide and Washington squabbles.

As for George Washington, Paul Oakley Stovall is very fatherly, vocally commanding and sincere as the general and our first president. He seems to be the moral compass of the show and is the judicious host of those cabinet slams.

And the other George, the king, plays an alternate narrator of sorts who gives us the British perspective. Peter Matthew Smith is sheer comedy royalty. Every line and movement is a punch line. He shows us love is truly a battlefield as oceans rise and empires fall with his giggly, flamboyant, narcissistic sass. He appears three times with variations of “You’ll Be Back,” the ultimate post-breakup letters to his loyal, royal subjects. Not to mention his booming vocals. Yes, King!

There’s just so much to say about this theatrical phenomenon. Forgive me for writing too many damn pages for any man to understand and writing like I’m running out of time. But you only have two weeks to see this revolutionary musical while it’s in town and I don’t want you to miss it. Scrappy and hungry for tickets? They’re scare, but you can try checking bushnell.org. Hamilton has a longer run than most shows at The Bushnell and will be there until Dec. 30.

I have the honor to be your obedient blogger. J.Soy.

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Cheers! Have a Merry ‘Christmas on the Rocks’

Credit: TheaterWorks

It’s the bar where everyone knows your Christmas character. Take that, flip it upside down, shake it up, and pour it over ice with a twist and you’ve got Christmas on the Rocks at TheaterWorks in Hartford.

One by one, adult versions of characters from popular holiday flicks spit out into the real world filter into a cozy, quiet, small-town bar decked out in all things Christmas, looking for something and maybe someone as they work their issues.

Impressively, only two actors play all the Christmas characters. Jenn Harris, who has been with the TheaterWorks original since it debuted a few years ago, plays all the women and newcomer Randy Harrison plays all the men with the exception of the bartender.

Tom Bloom returns as our patient, compassionate but straight-talking bar owner who was once quite the facilitator of “the hookup” before internet dating slowed down business. He serves up some fatherly advice, many shots of Wild Turkey and vodka, and a dose of reality. When he’s alone, he flips through the channels watching different Christmas movies, mouthing the words.

Like most bartenders experience, he falls into the role of a therapist without judgement for the most part because “he’s heard it all.” Though he does get rather cross with Clara from the Nutcracker and Tiny Tim when they insult him, so he’s not afraid to call patrons out when they’re being unreasonable. If he doesn’t have any wise counsel, he’s blunt about it. It’s funny because how many times have you spilled all your secrets to a bartender or stranger sitting next to you at the bar, expecting them to hold the answer you’re seeking when they really don’t know what to say or how to help you? It’s a listening game, similar to the position of the audience. We just listen and absorb.

And our endearing bartender sure is generous as none of the characters pay for their drinks. They’re on the house whether he offers it or not. After all, it’s Christmas Eve.

The structure of the play is quite unique, blending seven vignettes written by different authors into one fluid story, featuring characters from A Christmas Story, It’s A Wonderful Life, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker, and Charlie Brown. The lineup sometimes varies. In the past they’ve had Cindy Lou Who from How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Susan from A Miracle on 34th Street. I’m still hoping for Rusty from Christmas Family Vacation (maybe I’ll get to writing it).

Anyways, the play challenges our perceptions of these popular Christmas personalities as once sweet character spiral into flawed, jaded, and sometimes borderline psychotic individuals. Holiday protagonists like Frosty and Rudolph are villainized.

Harris and her former costar, Matthew Wilkas, who used to play all the male roles, wrote one of the newer sketches with the highest production value – “My Name Is KAREN!”, which happens in the middle of the play. She bursts into the bar as grownup Karen from animated Frosty and holds our barkeep hostage, gagging him with a stocking and tying him up with a string of Christmas lights that twinkle when she plugs them in. This is all so she can stage her vlog, The Karen Show, in a secure, undisclosed location. From singing a fun, tacky theme song to answering tweets that are too Frosty-centric for her liking, she remarkably streams her show from a tablet and smartphone to a projector displaying the video live time on screens on either side of the stage. It adds to the humor as we look back and forth between the live action before us and the video with extreme closeups.

On the run with melted Frosty in a bucket, Karen’s vanity and attention-seeking determination, enhanced by her technology, really comments on today’s self-absorbed and social media consumed society. It’s an inside joke of sorts to the audience who can strongly relate to the concept.

She, like many of the other characters portrayed, gives us a harsher perspective on beloved holiday classics we think we know, resentful that she was forgotten after saving Frosty while he claims all the fame. Harris is hilarious throwing shade at Frosty and Santa for leaving her as a child on a roof at the end of the story, resulting in her falling to the ground and breaking her neck. It’s a question that only an adult would ask that goes overlooked in a simplistic children’s story before we grow skeptical and scrutinize details based on logic instead of suspending our disbelief like we did in the wonderment of being a child.

Drink up, Karen. And that she does. Poor Frosty. Actually that’s what all of our other characters do as they come to terms with deep-routed issues centered on their Christmas backstories.

Harris also stands out in Still Nuts About Him by Edwin Sánchez as Clara from the Nutcracker, sporting a heavy Russian accent, nightgown, and ballet slippers as she downs vodka while freaking out about her cheating, distant, workaholic nut-cracking husband. She cracks herself – manically smashing peanuts on the bar with a nutcracker replica she decapitates. Don’t worry, she has another in her bag. Even though Clara barely smiles, she sends us into uproarious laughter with her physical comedy and outbursts. Harris is actually quite flexible, slipping into spread eagles and splits, exposing her undergarments and all her insecurities.

Credit: TheaterWorks

Harris is depressing as a paranoid, mentally scarred Zuzu from It’s a Wonderful Life who is terrified that the angels are after her every time a bell rings because she let the secret out that that’s how they can get their wings in A Miserable Life by Jacques Lamarre. I could take or leave that storyline, which is very sad. But it does get funnier as it goes along, from other variations on the saying and a haunting Carol of the Bells to a special delivery of angel wings from her father, George Bailey’s angel on Amazon. The ending of the sketch is a morbid, yet uplifting, so it redeems itself.

Meanwhile, Harrison pours misery into his string of characters, including A Christmas Story’s Ralphie, who opens the lineup, in “All Grown Up” by John Cariani, claymation Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer’s elf dentist Hermey in “Say It Glows” by Jeffrey Hatcher, A Christmas Carol’s Tiny Tim in “God Bless Us Everyone” by Theresa Rebeck, and Charlie Brown In Merry Christmas, Blockhead at the end.

But we get laughs in his Ralphie sequence – from his Trump crack, a joke added after the 2016 presidential election that keeps with the times, to his fetish for plush stuffed animals and outfits thanks to the pink bunny onesie from Aunt Clara. Some of the humor comes from perspectives that completely flip our understanding of holiday storylines like how Ralphie actually really, really loved that bunny suit and irony like the fact Scut Farkus shot Ralphie’s eye out in a NRA BB class he was teaching.

Harrison shines comically as Hermey, one of my favorite bits in the show, playing up the flamboyant nuances of the character and sexual innuendo behind “dentist” as a euphemism, giggling, strutting, jumping, bouncing, and mounting the bar (and nearly the bartender). And, man he can talk, so much so that the bartender leaves the room at one point during his story full of anger, hurt, vengeance and guilt about a bloody falling out with a smug, celebrity-tainted Rudolph that costs him his red nose. Order several “root canals,” it’s going to be a long appointment. But we adore this sassy elf for it.

Tiny Tim has always been my least favorite character in this show because he’s the grimmest, darkest persona and there doesn’t seem to be a real reason for his depressed, arrogant mood that has him perhaps even more cynical and entitled than Scrooge.

Even though Harrison’s Charlie Brown is really mopey and you feel bad for him, amplifying the hallmark qualities of that character, his closing storyline goes from a broken, pathetic marriage with Lucy who yappers on over the phone with the honking gibberish of the Peanuts adults and teacher to hopeful with the entrance of Harris as Little Red Haired Girl, his childhood crush. It’s the only scene all three actors are on stage together, ending on a heartwarming note that we are not alone and things can always get better.

Credit; TheaterWorks

Not to be mistaken for A Christmas Carol down the street at Hartford Stage, this too has become an original holiday tradition in our capital city. If you’re someone who anticipates watching Christmas movies every year, you’ll really love and appreciate Christmas on the Rocks.

While you can’t buy a drink from the set bar, which is quite realistic and charming with iconic Christmas décor like the leg lamp Ralphie caresses out of nostalgia the way he does in the film, you can sip on something from the theater bar while you watch.

More information on the show and buying tickets is available on theaterworkshartford.org.org.

God Bless ‘A Christmas Carol’ at Hartford Stage

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Michael Preston as Ebenezer Scrooge. Photo Credit: Hartford Stage

You may run into a ghost, or several, at Hartford Stage’s annual original production of A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas – a holiday homecoming masterpiece to look forward to every year.

Not much changed in this year’s production, as the once new faces of John-Andrew Morrison (Mr. Marvel), Kenneth De Abrew (Mr. Fezziwig/First Solicitor) and Shauna Miles (Mrs. Fezziwig/Mrs. Cratchit) become familiar as they return for a second year.

Michael Preston, who long played Marvel and has served as a mentor for Morrison in showing him the ropes of the role, reprised his leading stint as our Ebenezer Scrooge for the second time in the footsteps of Bill Raymond. Everyone has settled into their new seats at the Christmas Carol table quite nicely.

Mr Marvel

Scrooge (Michael Preston) seeks to collect from inventor Mr. Marvel (John-Andrew Morrison). Photo Credit: Hartford Stage

Preston plays a more austere and senile Scrooge who seems to be losing his mind. He shows the most humor during Spirit of Christmas Present’s visit when he is overly happy drinking the elixir of life, as well as toward the end when he does snow angels in his nightgown and balances a rather large turkey on his chin, no doubt showcasing circus talents gained from many seasons as a clown in St. Louis. He is a veteran in this production and it’s nice to see a change of pace with him in another role.

Speaking of veterans, Noble Shropshire (Jacob Marley/Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s housekeeper) has been with Hartford Stage’s rendition of A Christmas Carol as long as it’s been around. He is a core element of this production who keeps us coming back. Everyone wants to see Shropshire flying from the bowels of the stage through a foggy red backlit trap door as the haunted ghost of Marley, Scrooge’s partner (who died seven years ago this very night) and donning a dress as the dutiful Mrs. Dilber waiting on the “Wicked Ole Screw.” He and Preston have strong chemistry in their scenes together, drawing out the most playful, childlike side of Scrooge.

Marley

Marley (Noble Shropshire) rises from the spirit world, haunting Scrooge (Michael Preston) with a warning. Photo Credit: Hartford Stage

Alan Rust is another longtime cast member, oozing jolliness in the roles of Bert and Spirit of Christmas Present.

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Alan Rust as the Spirit of Christmas Present. Photo Credit: Hartford Stage

Robert Hannon Davis was back as the affable father Bob Cratchit and Scrooge’s clerk. He always makes you feel at home when you see him play this family man part.

Morrison showed range from a concerned, resolute inventor trying to make ends meet to a giddy romantic who is overjoyed to go for Christmas dinner with lovely doll vendor Betty Pidgeon (Rebecka Jones, who also plays the divine, shimmering Spirit of Christmas Past).

Ghost of Christmas Past

Rebecka Jones as the Spirit of Christmas Past. Photo Credit: Hartford Stage

Miles is a bright addition to the cast as both Mrs. Fezziwig and Cratchit, as is De Abrew as the jolly Mr. Fezziwig and determined solicitor who can be persuaded to attend any event if lunch is provided.

Fezziwig

The Fezziwigs (Shauna Miles and Kenneth De Abrew). Photo Credit: Hartford Stage

De Abrew and Buzz Roddy (Second Solicitor) played well off each other, particular in the sequence when they’re quarreling over who will take a woman they’re both keen on to church.

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Kenneth De Abrew (First Solicitor), Michael Preston (Scrooge) and Buzz Roddy (Second Solicitor). Photo Credit: Hartford Stage

Vanessa R. Butler has risen in the ranks in this cast, from ensemble and a party guest at Scrooge’s nephew Fred’s Christmas dinner to Belle, once Scrooge’s fiancée, and Fred’s wife. She truly shines with grace and beams full of light.

Saturday evening, Dec. 1 audience members saw Reid Williams, of the Hartt School, by her side as 30-year-old Scrooge and Fred, standing in as understudy for Terrell Donnell Sledge. He poured joyous Christmas spirit into Fred and played both a romantic and money-focused, serious workaholic as young Scrooge. Well done!

The precious thing about A Christmas Carol is that it excels in its smaller moments, giving the spotlight to everyone in the ensemble at one moment or another. Everyone fully commits. Sarah Killough stood out as Fred’s ditsy, giggly sister-in-law in the dinner party scene and she paired well with Mark Lawrence as the awkward bachelor, Mr. Topper.

The children, as always, were adorable and talented, particularly Tiny Tim (Andrew Michaels/R.J. Vercellone), the “Turkey Boy” (Damien Galvez or Nicholas Glowacki), and the cider children/Ignorance and Want (Ethan Dinello/Max Kerz and Divena Rai or Anderson Wilder, respectively).

The Victorian dressed, black-lit dancing ghosts, including one actually flown high above the stage, accessorized with glowing death devices and chains, are the hallmark of this production. The choreography is precise and elegant, very pleasing to watch.

While the ghosts don’t do much more in the way of audience interaction than stare down the people in the front row, you may want to prepare your children for this part of the production because some young kids in the audience were scared of them. The Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come is also unsettling and wreaks of doom, circling the stage on a tall tricycle. Otherwise, this production is very child-friendly.

From snow and glitter sprinkled on the stage and audience to lighting and clock projections, this show has high quality production value. Not to mention it is backed with a dynamic and memorable score with spooky original music by John Gromada.

This show is nothing if not consistent, never failing to entertain. Even when the production, staging, and costuming remain the same, it maintains a freshness born out of holiday nostalgia. It’s like every Christmas movie you have to wait a whole year to see or the thrill of a long-anticipated white Christmas snowfall.

This show is the perfect way to graduate from Halloween and fall into winter and the holidays. It truly has a Nightmare Before Christmas vibe to it that is grim, exquisite, and joyous all at once.

From the parlor games to the unique addition of Scrooge inviting everyone over his house to celebrate Christmas, this holiday ghost story is full of fun moments and has a very happy ending that includes the audience.

Be a guest of Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas. It’s a party to die for that you won’t want to miss.

A Christmas Carol, directed by Rachel Alderman, runs through Dec. 29 at Hartford Stage, located at 50 Church St. in Connecticut’s capital city. More information on the production and ticket purchases is available on the theater’s website at https://www.hartfordstage.org.