Review: Hamilton by touring company
by Brian Paul Scipione
"The tension was palpable. . . ."
We're all familiar with the phrase, and that was certainly the case among the audience waiting for the show to begin at the Bass Concert Hall on December 8.
The stage set with stairs, risers, shipping ropes, and balconies was starkly simple, its texture complexly detailed with time-worn grey bricks and weathered wood. It was later revealed to be a rotating stage which gave the small space behind the proscenium arch a three-dimensional vibrancy. This balancing act between simplicity and complexity continued throughout the performance. The music jumps between full orchestra to a single piano or guitar. The stage is full of dancing and celebration that fades to a spotlight highlighting a single actor. And the music is either lyrically intricate and delivered at staccato pace or slow and mournful, focusing on a single sentiment. The sparse set elements contrasted with the explosive movement of the choreography. The audience’s gaze was constantly drawn to the actors' actions in what felt like a voyeuristic context, a distinctly Sleep No More vibe.
The highlight of this touring production is the multitude of ways it differs from a frozen-in-time movie version of the original cast. The original, indubitably a modern classic, has a cult-like following despite being only half a decade old. The original stagiing won eleven Tony Awards and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It re-cemented a giant historical figure as a modern-day romantic, a counterculture hero, especially significant now because of the current political atmosphere of distrust of government. Alexander Hamilton’s story is here re-framed as that of a man who lives for his personal integrity and love for his country. He's no patriot for patriotism’s sake. He's a Greek tragic hero bought down not by hubris but rather by his humility. Even when he crosses political lines to support his past enemy Jefferson, he's presented as loyal to the truth as he sees it, a man especially adverse to being depicted as an opportunist mugwump.
Considering the work’s many adoring and devout followers, this touring production of Hamilton could easily have been executed as a by-the-numbers reproduction of the original. It is not. Director Thomas Kail, like an excellent band leader, has assembled a cast of performers in which each brings a little (or a lot!) of their own thing to the production.
From the first song the pace seemed slower than in the original, with more emphasis on the characters' swagger than on their musical virtuosity. This approach gave performances an authentic and beguiling spontaneity that was enhanced by the energy of the live orchestra. The musical arrangements had an improvisational air like that of the house band of a beatnik jazz café. Songs evoked many famous hip-hop acts, including Tribe Called Quest, CeeLo Green, Diggable Planets, and De La Soul. The musical tempo seemed to follow the vocal lines rather than the other way around, the more familiar approach of classical musicals.
Performers’ accents were entrancing. Edred Utomi’s accent as Hamilton was brusque and brawling. David Park’s French accent as Lafayette was hilarious without being clichéd, and his later accent as Jefferson was unctuous and arrogant, perfectly defining the character. Peter Matthew Smith as King George had the advantage of playing a fan favorite, but that didn't stop him from redefining the role by alternating between posh and cockney accents throughout. When the King loses control of his emotions, that cockney accent breaks out like a Tourette’s symptom outburst, a choice deepened the the character’s madness and made him seem not merely eccentric but dangerously bi-polar.
Zoe Jensen as Eliza Hamilton has an incredible range and a deeply beautiful voice. Her singing was far more than a pleasant respite from the hip-hop informed tunes; it induced goosebumps. Her rendition of “Burn” is worth the entire price of admission.
This production is certainly worth the wait. It's a treat to old and new fans alike.
2350 Robert Dedman Drive
Austin, TX, 78712
Tickets available via Broadway in Austin.