‘Hamilton,’ energized by spirit of America’s founding, opens Chicago run in stylish blaze
Review: “Hamilton,” music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, presented by Broadway in Chicago, at The PrivateBank Theatre through Sept. 17, 2017. ★★★★★
By Nancy Malitz
If you don’t already possess those nearly impossible-to-get tickets for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s high-energy hit show “Hamilton,” now settled in at the Loop’s PrivateBank Theatre for a long Chicago run, here’s some reassuring news:
The handsome Chicago transplant of Miranda’s musical about our Founding Fathers is a grand installation, built to last. A new block of tickets went on sale recently, extending the run to Sept. 17, 2017. More such extensions are expected.
Meanwhile there’s a fascinating new PBS documentary –“Hamilton’s America,” airing Oct. 21 at 9 p.m. and Oct. 23 at 3:30 p.m. It shows Miranda at work on aspects of the musical as far back as 2008, improvising free-style backstage, writing in his apartment and appearing at the White House.The original cast recording is highly recommended, too. It’s easy to miss some of the intricacies with just one listen. Some of the lyrics are flat-out amazing.
Chicago’s stage set is a convincing duplicate of the multi-level timber and brick original scenic design still playing at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway.
The same producer (Jeffrey Seller), director (Thomas Kail), choreographer (Andy Blankenbuehler), scenic designer (David Korins) and costume designer (Paul Tazewell) who created the Broadway production were directly involved in the Chicago creation. Take a look at some of the irresistible choreography as it came together on Broadway, below.
Bathed in golden hues, with a rotating circular floor that is rimmed with ramps and ropes and planks and crannies, it’s an ingeniously versatile playing space for the ensemble of acting and dancing singers who make their energetic contemporary moves while wearing structured period clothes, sustaining the moods and building excitement while responding to Hamilton’s story.
“Hey yo, I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry and I’m not throwing away my shot” is the clarion call of Alexander Hamilton in this contemporary re-imagining of our own history. The idea was to remove the distance of centuries, and to let the immigrant founders of America have the skin colors and demeanors of immigrant Americans today. The historical Hamilton arrived in pre-Revolutionary New York as a penniless but brainy immigrant out of the West Indies. He reads voraciously and vows to ascend. (Miranda himself is of Puerto Rican descent.)
“My Shot” is one of the best songs of recent decades, filled with clever and meticulous wordplay that’s reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim. In a score filled with surprises, Miranda sneaks in references to Shakespeare, Gilbert & Sullivan, Tupac, “South Pacific” and “Les Miz.” Even to the Beatles, whom King George (played for laughs by the stentorian-voiced Alexander Gemignani) channels in his fits of royal pique. “All alone, across the sea. When your people say they hate you don’t come crawling back to me. Da da da dat da dat da da da, Da ya da, Da da dat, Da da ya da.”
Miranda himself originated the role of Hamilton and played it at the Public Theater and later on Broadway starting in 2015 – here’s a PBS video from back then. Miguel Cervantes also played Hamilton on Broadway for certain performances, and it’s Cervantes who gets the star turn in Chicago.
Cervantes is outstanding as the young Hamilton, below right, who becomes intoxicated with the revolutionary idealism of the era and joins up with friends to fight.
Hamilton becomes secretary to George Washington (tall, noble-in-manner Jonathan Kirkland) and in Act II, after the war is won, he takes an increasingly aggressive role in trying to shape the nascent American government, inevitably clashing over the country’s fiscal policy and international agenda with the flamboyant Virginia slave-owner Thomas Jefferson (Chris De’Sean Lee, wonderfully over the top) and jealous Aaron Burr (Joshua Henry). The songs are compelling in this section, and clever arguments rage over positions that sound a lot like the partisan arguments we hear today.. It’s a beautifully cast foursome with a constantly changing dynamic.
The ultimately fatal jealousy that erupts between Burr and Hamilton is shown in an early stage as Hamilton finally figures out the political art of compromise and Burr falls envious. Like an ignored bystander in the spin room, Burr mutters: “No one really knows how the game is played, the art of the trade, how the sausage gets made. We just assume that it happens. But no one else is in the room where it happens. I wanna be in the room where it happens. The room where it happens.”
The cast is balanced by three women who play the Schuyler sisters — Karen Olivo as Angelica; Ari Afsar as Eliza, who becomes Hamilton’s wife; and Samantha Marie Ware, who in addition to playing the third sister is also Maria Reynolds, Hamilton’s mistress and a source of public scandal. Although their voices were beautiful and all gave touching performances, I had intermittent difficulty, from the mezzanine, understanding the words they sang.
That said, the show is one high-energy package. From the get-go, it bursts with a youthful vitality that flows from the stage in ever-changing waves.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com