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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