Friday, December 14, 2018

Review of "Hamilton"

The long-awaited juggernaut known as Hamilton arrived at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts this week.  For theater-goers lucky enough to obtain tickets, they will encounter a production that lives up to the pre-arrival hype. 

The brilliance of the musical is not just because of the distinguished score by Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Every element in the show is breathtaking and combines to create a scintillating theatrical experience.

The show is based on the life of one of the founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton.  From my high school American history class, many years ago, I can only remember this historical figure as being the first Secretary of the United States Treasury and his duel with longtime nemesis, Aaron Burr.  That’s it.  In Hamilton, a more vivid picture of this arrogant, brash, patriotic, and talented man is presented.  Miranda, who also wrote the book of the musical, traces Hamilton’s life from the time he arrives in this country as a young immigrant to his appointment as George Washington’s senior aide during the Revolutionary War, his marriage, law practice in New York City, the many treatises he penned, including the majority of The Federalist Papers, his joustings with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and his untimely end.

Initially, this may sound like a dull subject for a musical, but Miranda brings his subject matter alive, distilling author Ron Chernow’s 827 page book into a history lesson for the ages.  Act One is more impelling and dynamic then Act Two because Hamilton’s life was more colorful and dramatic, as a theatrical presentation.  The second half of the musical, while gripping and full of backroom deals and politics, is less rousing as it revolves around the machinations of a new nation coming to grips with how to govern itself.

The spirited group of actors brings the material to vigorous life.  This isn’t the staid group of older white males from the musical 1776.  The multi-ethnic performers are young, hip, and full of intensity.  The cast is led by Austin Scott’s splendid, multi-layered portrayal of Alexander Hamilton.  The forefather is full of zeal, brimming with insolence and indignation, but also a cerebral and impassioned man.  Scott, tall and lanky, brings all these attributes to life.  Other notables include Paul Oakley Stovall as a stately and solemn George Washington; Bryson Bruce as a hang loose, chilled out Thomas Jefferson looking to find his groove; Josh Tower as the indecisive and disdained Aaron Burr; and Peter Matthew Smith as a hilarious, though perceptive, King George.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score fuses current musical trends, rap, and hip-hop with conventional Broadway melodies.  They meld beautifully into an energetic and electrifying whole that both Broadway purists and younger audiences can embrace.

The choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, a frequent collaborator with Miranda, is simply dazzling.  He brings the urgency of a blossoming nation to the fore.  His dance arrangements and movements for the actors flow from the action and situations on stage as opposed to developing inorganically.  There are straightforward choreographed numbers, but the strength of his work in how totally ingrained it is within the very structure of the production.

Thomas Kail’s direction is exciting and powerfully framed.  His imagination is boundless and the inventiveness he conveys on stage is thrilling.   His collaboration with Blankenbuehler’s choreography is positively symbiotic.  He has a good feel for the material whether it is the combative events portrayed in the show or the more poignant moments surrounding the statesman.  Even with minimal props and scenery Kail creates a world we want to know more about.

Hamilton, already one of the highlights of this season’s Connecticut theater scene, playing at the Bushell Center for the Performing Arts through December 30th.

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