Since its Broadway debut four years ago, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” has been been treated to so many rave reviews, probing commentaries and theatrical awards that a late arrival to the party may be excused for wondering if all the hype is justified.
Uh … yeah. It pretty much is.
Really, what chutzpah does it take to retell the story of our nation’s creation employing rap music and a mostly minority cast as the Founding Fathers?
It’s an audacious conceit, but one that works beautifully. Turns out hip-hop is the perfect medium to express the complex and often contradictory ideas percolating around America’s birth.
Not that rap is all Miranda’s score has to offer. There’s some roof-raising soul singing, a couple of gentle ballads, even a great ’60s-style novelty tune sung by pompous King George (Jon Patrick Walker) as he throws shade at his rebellious American minions.
Throughout the show the choral arrangements — sometimes soaring, often percussive — are little short of astounding; the idiom may be rap, but the effect is operatic.
In fact, “Hamilton” is far more like opera than musical comedy. There’s virtually no spoken dialogue, and while the characters are developed through their songs, the show’s emphasis is less on individual drama than on the grand sweep of history that, against all odds, gave us the USA we know today.
Joseph Morales plays the title character, an impoverished Caribbean import who comes to the colonies and recasts himself as a soldier, deep thinker and lover. This Hamilton isn’t necessarily likable. His self confidence borders on arrogance (early on in “My Shot” he lays out his determination to succeed), but, boy, does he have a brain on him.
Morales possesses a fine singing voice that expertly handles all the styles the score throws at him. But he’s a sort of reluctant hero with plenty of flaws, and in many regards this Hamilton remains something of a cipher.
What are you gonna do … humorless intellectualism isn’t the easiest thing to sell to audiences.
Faring better in that regard are the show’s two main, well, not villains, exactly, but antagonists.
Nik Walker plays Aaron Burr as a sort of Iago to Hamilton’s Othello, a political animal desperate for recognition and power (his song “The Room Where It Happens” nails his need for insider status). Thing is, he lacks any kind of moral compass or personal belief. The guy doesn’t stand for anything. (Stop me if this sounds familiar.)
And then there’s Thomas Jefferson, played by the energetic Kyle Scatliffe as a smugly flamboyant type who spends the revolutionary years in France and, after victory, shows up to ask the boogie-woogie musical question, “What’d I Miss?”
The schism between Hamilton, believer in a strong federal government and a central bank, and Jefferson, a slave-holding agrarian suspicious of governments in general, is laid out in rap battles of mind-boggling wordplay.
(By the way, “Hamilton’s” sound design is immaculate. The acoustic demons of the Music Hall have been wrestled into submission by this production. Every rapid-fire word comes through loud and clear.)
Act I concentrates mostly on Hamilton’s contribution to the war effort as right-hand man to George Washington (Marcus Choi) and his wooing and wedding of Eliza Schuyler (Erin Clemons), daughter of one of New York’s richest men.
Act II deals with the struggle over just what form America’s government will take. This is hardly the sort of thing you’d expect to thrill audiences, yet Thomas Kail’s direction, Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography and the flawless musical direction by Alex Lacamoire create a narrative juggernaut of movement and sound.
But if Act I is about the hope of freedom, Act II suggests trouble in paradise. It’s not just the rise of political parties that threatens the calm after the storm of war. Hamilton must endure the death of a loved one in a duel (a loss that foreshadows his own death at Burr’s hands).
On a few occasions “Hamilton” achieves real poignancy, as with the retiring Washington’s farewell to the country or Eliza’s summation of her husband’s place in history (“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”).
All this plays out on David Korins’ massive set, evocative of a brick-lined colonial cellar (or perhaps warehouse) bordered with wooden galleries and staircases. A turntable at center stage creates opportunities for dynamic staging.
What’s amazing about all this is that the show’s dissents, arguments and confrontations over what America will be have not been put to rest. They’re still in flux, still capable of causing trouble.
And that, “Hamilton” seems to be saying, is the way it’s always going to be.
“Hamilton” continues at Kansas City’s Music Hall through July 7. Tickets are mostly sold out, but check on Ticketmaster.com.