BY SANDY STAGGS
Hamilton Mania has indeed come to the Upstate. As fans eagerly await their appointed curtain times, or for a lottery miracle to the theatrical event of the decade, others, like me, are just thankful to have been touched by “Hamilton,” having waited nearly long four years for this moment.
Winner of practically every award possible for a Broadway musical, including a Pulitzer and Grammy, “Hamilton” is an impressive,exhausting, awe-inspiring, overwhelming display of storytelling – and a true story at that.
If, as one fellow critic recently told me, “In the Heights”(recently performed here in Greenville in July by Glow Lyric Theatre) is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sophomoric endeavor, by George, this is his magnum opus, writing the book, music & lyrics. “Hamilton” is one of those rare works that indelibly defines a generation, setting a new standard about what is possible in theatre and demolishing the notion of politically correct correctness.
On paper, this equation should not work: the strange sourcing of fodder from Ron Chernow’s biography “Alexander Hamilton” for a musical; a rap and hip-hop infused score and lyrics; and not to mention the non-traditional casting of all of the major players of the American Revolution.
And instead of re-writing history, Miranda ingratiates it through a cultural prism that is mesmerizing and…well, educational.
The show is supremely staged and directed by Tony winner Thomas Kail (also director of “In the Heights” and the live NBC production of “Grease”). And without being too showy or allowing character or emotion be upstaged by spectacle, “Hamilton” is remarkably low-tech with mostly simple props and set pieces.
David Korin’s single two-story design, which serves as every location from a courtroom to grand ball room, is a pastiche of textures particularly the upstage wall, whose details only become apparent when illuminated by Howell Binkley’s Tony-winning lighting.
The dazzle isn’t showy with bells and whistles, but more subtle where even the most intimate moments are grand. That drop-down staircase you’ve probably seen in “Hamilton” videos or TV performances, is shown landing in its place only once. The plot is literally moved forward (and backward) by the linchpin of the set design, the turntable with multiple moving stages, that allows the action to beautifully, and gracefully proceed through time and scene transitions.
This clean, fluid direction, extends to every element. Even a simple chair is ever just lifted up and off the stage after a scene. One actor sets it on the turntable, it crosses the stage to another actor who may sit and spin, then take the chair nonchalantly with a spring in his/her step to its temporary resting place for the next actor.
Andy Blankenbuehler ‘s Tony-winning moves are fresh, sharp and extend the mashing of the old and the new, like Paul Tazewell’s bold Tony-winning costumes, or Miranda’s juxtaposition of modern slang with formal 18thCentury language that interconnect in fascinating ways.
And all of this about a man whose death was more infamous than his life. Yes, we see the dual that brought down the man behind the face of our Ten Dollar Bill, as well as two others and the turntable stage excitably captures the shifts in perspective and buildup the drama and final countdown.
Joseph Morales takes on the Miranda role of Hamilton on the national tour, and he is a worthy successor: brisk, defiant and a natural performer (a crowd-wooing “My Shot” by the way) who delivers a charismatic young lawyer who has “a lot of brains but no polish.”
Miranda’s genius is evident in the opening number, “Alexander Hamilton,” condensing of 40 pages of biography into a 4 minute hip-hop song grounded by soft, steadfast rhythmic orchestral notes that acclimate the listeners’ ear and propel them into this world not only of colonial New England, but the world of rap and hip-hop, whose paths rarely converge on Broadway.
But it’s Nik Walker’s Aaron Burr who surprisingly steals the show. History may not have been kind to Burr, but Miranda is, and so is Walker,regretting his character’s folly with “And I am the damn fool who shot him.” If there is any villain in this story, Walker’s charisma and light-handed gravitas makes it tough to point that finger at him. He is arguably more likable than originator Leslie Odom, Jr.’s version.
“Hamilton” presents the titular figure as a man with flaws. Shoba Narayan is delightful in the role of Eliza Hamilton, of the well –bred “ The Schuyler Sisters,” even has Hamilton carries on an affair with her sister Angelica (Ta’rea Campbell). And later in his career, Hamilton takes a married woman Maria Reynolds (sung by Nyla Sostre), which exposes him to blackmail.
And another nugget of truth patrons will take away from this story is the long history Burr and Hamilton had. They didn’t just wake up one day and decide to fight to the death. The young Hamilton was a protégé, an ingénue to Burr’s super-refinement and career.
With egos and power grabs just as vicious as today’s politicaljungle landscape (the fact that Hamilton “the immigrant” was Washington’s “Right Hand Man” and established the U.S economic system we still use today is not lost in our current political climate), Miranda gives us a fresh perspective of the founding fathers: Asian American Marcus Choi as George Washington, and brown-hued actors Fergie L. Philippe as James Madison, and Kyle Scatliffe on double-duty also as the Marquis de Lafayette and rock star ambassador Thomas Jefferson
And a big shout out to Jon Patrick Walker as the pissed-off King George III who reaches out to the defiant colonies three glorious times with solo segments that just get more desperate, angry and hilarious.
“Hamilton” continues through Sunday, Dec. 16 at the Peace Center, 300 South Main Street in Greenville. Call the Box Office at (864)467-3000 or visit http://www.peacecenter.org.“