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Still astounding, and still astoundingly good

The Kimmel Center Cultural Campus presents Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton

In
5 minute read
Three male cast members in luxurious costumes stand behind Pierre Jean Gonzalez as Hamilton, victoriously raising one hand
Perfect panache: ‘Hamilton’ ensemble members. (Photo by Joan Marcus.)

Hamilton is a juggernaut. Since 2015, when it opened at New York’s Public Theater, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s revelatory musical has been rolling over skeptics and winning over audiences in its theatrical and cultural path. Irrepressible and unstoppable, the production is now at the Academy of Music for a six-week run, and it totally lives up to both legend and dramatic expectations.

Fearlessly directed with pinpoint brilliance by Thomas Kail, this sung-through musical is the hip-hop-and-much-more retelling of our country’s founding, opening as Alexander Hamilton (Pierre Jean Gonzalez) arrives on American shores from the island of Jamaica. “I’m only 19 but my mind is old,” he says, singing “in New York you can be a new man,” still the immigrant’s mantra.

Where we need to be

Hamilton’s first act is about our War of Independence—soldiers forming bonds, pamphleteering, writing, and fighting, telling anew our victory-against-all-odds story. Act II is about the business of nation-building, where loyalties shift, personalities clash, glory unfurls, and tragedy unspools. Along with his own inimitable style, Miranda fills book, music, and lyrics (totally intertwined) with an amazing range of references—political, topical (old and now), showbiz, R&B, pop culture, Gilbert and Sullivan, literature, rap—and makes perfect sense of it all. He also integrates the founding fathers’ written words, boldly starting the second act with the less-than-glamorous Federalist Papers and using George Washington’s heartfelt post-presidency farewell to supremely moving effect.

This show is the product of a creative mind that, like the title character’s, is always ranging and searching. Hamilton is more akin to Shakespeare than anything else, sweeping through history, using comic interludes to shape dramatic action, and endowing its characters with Bard-like range and dimension. (Miranda even quotes substantially from Macbeth.) And like a good Shakespeare presentation, it’s not important that you get every word. This company will take you where you need to be.

An artist's bounty

The show boasts a rich bounty for its thrillingly diverse cast. There is of course the riveting title role, but in iconoclastic fashion—and depending on your point of view—any of the 10 titled characters could be considered a lead. It might be one (or all) of the Schuyler sisters: ebullient Angelica (Philadelphia’s own Ta’Rea Campbell), Peggy (Paige Smallwood), or heartbreaking Eliza (Stephanie Jae Park), who marries Hamilton.

There’s Marcus Choi’s deeply moving portrayal of George Washington, the riveting and tragic Aaron Burr (Jared Dixon), Thomas Jefferson (Warren Egypt Franklin) with his preening intellectualism, and the drag-queen strut of King George III (Neil Haskell, from the original Broadway cast). All have solid gold theatrical credits, and each delivers a smashing performance. It’s impossible to light on a favorite. Each time one pops forward, another moves into place in the pantheon.

The 25-member ensemble cast dances and sings and covers multiple roles with glee and perfect panache. And the entire company moves seemingly effortlessly through choreography (by Andy Blankenbuehler) that stops the show even while moving it right along. Musically, Hamilton has 34 numbers: anthems for both leads and chorus that are perfectly grounded and driven by a tight 15-piece pit band led by Roberto Sinha from the keyboard. Orchestration by Alex Lacamoire is especially creative; instrumentation ranges from keyboards, harpsichord, percussion, and strings, to synthesizer and Ableton programming.

Stephanie Jae Park, Ta’Rea Campbell, and Paige Smallwood pose in a joyful trio, one arm extended, in satin 1700s dresses
All roles worthy of lead billing: (from left) Stephanie Jae Park, Ta’Rea Campbell, and Paige Smallwood, as the Schuyler sisters. (Photo by Joan Marcus.)

The historic 2600-seat Academy of Music, designed in 1857 as an opera house, may present a challenge for a cast and crew of this size (many old halls do), but David Korins’s history-evoking scenic design with its multiple playing levels and movable pieces fits perfectly into the gilded hall.

Like Kail’s immersive direction and the show itself, Howell Binkley’s lighting also references many sources—sweeping arcs of rock-show lighting, mellow vaudeville tones, white-light stand-up comedy bump-ups, moody melodrama—all serving the thrust of the play. And Paul Tazewell’s unique era-blending costumes have entered sartorial history.

Entering the lexicon

The playwright based his show on the acclaimed 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton by historian Ron Chernow, not the first time literature has inspired dramaturgy but certainly one of the most memorable. Reading Chernow’s book led Miranda to extemporize an Obama White House rap performance, the genesis of this show, and the playwright has been lauded in about every possible theatrical way: Tony, Emmy, and Grammy awards; Pulitzer Prize; Kennedy Center Honors; and the MacArthur Foundation Award (aka “genius grant”).

The show, which seemed so unusual at its inception, has entered the theatrical lexicon and profoundly impacted our cultural, political, and educational life. We see our colonial history through a mythic lens, but Hamilton reframes it. Miranda affords a fresh look at an era about which we think we know all but actually know little. Interestingly, a few blocks away, the Museum of the American Revolution (located right across the street from Hamilton’s First Bank of the US) has a new exhibition undertaking the same task in a quite different but also compelling way.

Opening at the Academy

On opening night, the Academy was packed. Sidewalk lines for vaccination validation moved quickly, the polite crowd thrilled to be there. The show is long at two and a half hours, but worthy of every minute. The audience—widely diverse in every way, many familiar with the score or the play or both—cheered akin to a sporting event or stadium rock concert.

Yes, Hamilton is a juggernaut. As well as stand-alone productions in New York (the lodestone), Los Angeles, London, Sydney, Melbourne, and Hamburg (Germany), there are three touring troupes currently rapping and roaming through 41 North American cities. It seems impossible that a theatrical machine this huge (the creative and production team for this tour company alone numbers 36) could maintain its integrity and dramatic power, but incredibly, it does.

In his book, Chernow says that Alexander Hamilton, through the magnificent scope of his work, was “the messenger from a future that we now inhabit.” Theatrically, thankfully, we can also say that about Lin-Manuel Miranda.

What, When, Where

Hamilton. Book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Directed by Thomas Kail. $39-$399. Through Sunday, November 28, 2021, at the Academy of Music, 240 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelculturalcampus.org.

Patrons are required to show proof of full Covid-19 vaccination at entry and wear masks inside the building. Proof of negative Covid tests will not be accepted, with the exception of children under 12, who are required to show a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours before showtime.

Accessibility

The Academy of Music has wheelchair seating available, as well as seating locations near the stage for patrons with low vision or blindness. Audio description and ASL interpretation available for select performances.

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