The room where it happens is finally located in Philadelphia. Almost half a decade after it launched a global juggernaut, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton reached the city that feels the historical events embedded in the musical in its marrow. Was it worth the wait?
Happily, yes. Whether the production playing a virtually unprecedented three-month engagement at the Forrest Theatre is your first exposure to this slice of revisionist biography, or you happen to be a veteran of its long-running Broadway or Chicago cousins, you are likely to leave in awe of Miranda’s skillful and intelligent writing, Thomas Kail’s thoughtful direction, and the immense talents of the large, diverse cast.
This was my first Hamilton since catching the premiere in its early weeks at New York’s Public Theater. (I’m not humblebragging—sometimes you just get lucky.) I’ll be the first to admit that while I admired the show from the beginning, I never expected it to develop into a phenomenon that would essentially become a byword for the revitalization of an entire industry. Long story short: If you’re a betting person, don’t take advice from me.
What’s remarkable is how the musical has expanded and deepened as it moved into bigger quarters—the opposite of what usually occurs when a work transitions from its intimate beginnings to larger stages. But in many ways, Miranda’s conception of early US history has always been bursting at its seams.
His brilliant idea to highlight the immigrant story at the heart of the American experiment by privileging the casting of nonwhite performers in purposeful anachronism, invites an audience who may have felt alienated to see themselves in the fabric of a story that has always been theirs as much as anyone else’s. As Eliza Hamilton, wife to Alexander, sings in the show’s final moments: “I put myself back in the narrative.” That is exactly what Miranda has done.
Shocking, immediate history
But Hamilton isn’t an academic exercise. It is first and foremost an entertainment, and a damn good one. Miranda’s extraordinary ear for blending disparate musical styles into a seamless garment of a score is on full display, as the characters balance snatches of rap, rock, R&B, doo-wop, and traditional musical theater in perfect concert. The British Invasion pop pastiches supplied for the scorned King George (played here by a delectable Peter Matthew Smith) rival the real-deal classics.
Kail’s direction also succeeds in its ability to turn dry historical figures into flesh-and-blood people who positively burst from the stage. It’s difficult to infuse a well-known, oft-told story with fresh dramatic momentum, but here, the tragic dimensions of Alexander Hamilton’s relationship to Aaron Burr burn with ripping intensity and unexpected moments of discovery. The trajectory from fatherly adulation to friendly rivalry to the cataclysm recorded forever in the history books feels shocking and immediate in a way that, by rights, it shouldn’t.
Aaron Burr, sir
Although Hamilton gets top billing—played here by Edred Utomi as a wry, wily striver who knows his worth—Miranda's Burr is the work’s timeless creation, bursting with conflict, anger, and surprising remorse over the trajectory of his life. Josh Tower gives the complex role its full due. He mines “The Room Where It Happens,” Burr’s psychological cri di coeur, for its full potential, revealing the depths of a man who thrives on keeping his emotions in check.
A strong supporting cast further buoys the proceedings. Bryson Bruce makes an appropriately preening Thomas Jefferson, while Paul Oakley Stovall lends a stentorian aura to the ultimate Founding Father, George Washington. Stephanie Umoh’s well-judged and impeccably sung Angelica Schuyler engages the role’s melodramatic underpinnings (her secret desire for Hamilton, her brother-in-law) and its proto-feminist power, as she becomes a silent power player.
Hannah Cruz charts a trajectory of self-actualization as Eliza Hamilton. In blazing voice, she asserts herself in the arresting “Burn” as every bit her husband’s equal. She proves devastating and hopeful in the finale, as she strives to cement Alexander’s legacy. In this critic’s opinion, she eclipses the role’s Tony-nominated originator, Phillipa Soo, in terms of nuanced acting and vocal power.
The entire endeavor exudes an energy that national tours usually lack. A fine physical production complements the proceedings. David Korins’s stately unit set, bracingly lighted by Howell Binkley, fits nicely on the Forrest’s compact stage. Paul Tazewell’s costumes smartly subvert our expectations of colonial garb. Nevin Steinberg’s subtle sound design allows every word to ring out clearly, and doesn’t overamplify the orchestra—a rarity when it comes to road shows.
A lasting achievement
Even a musical as accomplished as this cannot be flawless. A subplot involving Hamilton’s affair with the married Maria Reynolds (a sultry Olivia Puckett) and the scandal it causes remains underdeveloped in its attempt to reveal layers of Alexander’s character. And although Miranda tries his best, he does not always avoid the pervasive hero worship that such a show would want to supplant. That he treats the Founding Fathers with respect and reverence is no surprise; that he occasionally fails to chip away at their calcified public images is.
Still, no one can deny the monumental achievement at hand. Hamilton sings that he wants to build something—in his case, a country—that will outlive him. Miranda can rest assured that he has.
While the Broadway production of Hamilton remains sold out until kingdom come, representatives from the Kimmel Center, which is sponsoring the Philadelphia engagement, report that tickets are currently available for all performances through November 17. Don’t throw away your shot to see the show of the century.
What, When, Where
Hamilton. By Lin-Manuel Miranda, directed by Thomas Kail. Broadway Philadelphia. Through November 17, 2019, at the Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or telecharge.com.
The Forrest Theatre offers wheelchair and companion seating on the orchestra level, which can be purchased online. Patrons with inquiries about accessible seating can call Patron Services at (215) 893-1999 or email [email protected].