Sunday, January 14, 2018

Hamilton – Book, Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda – Inspired by the book Hamilton by Ron Chernow

L - R Michael Luwoye and Isaiah Johnson

By Joe Straw

Moments before the start of this production at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, there was a peculiar disquieting moment as the lights dimmed, followed by a slow rising reverberation, a grumble, a settling rumble, and then finally a vocal roar of anticipation was heightened as the slow fade continued into darkness.

And on this sold-out night, as the stage lights came up, the audience let loose a spirited roar to the sounds of the orchestra’s DAN, DA, DA, DA, DAN DAN DAN!

How does a bastard, orphan
son of a whore and a Scotsman,
dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot
in the Caribbean by providence
impoverished, in squalor
grow up to be a hero and a scholar?  - Aaron Burr

Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and directed by Thomas Kail, is a brilliant musical love story that uplifts the human spirit while giving birth to an awakening populace. It is a mosaic of diversity, inlaid, and hand painted, carefully placed in the foreground that bequeaths new life to independence. The beats, all in glorious sounds, bring forth a sincere inner existence of human foibles, love, and jealously that moves tortuous souls to a tragic endpoint.  

Created characters in this play, both men and women, have far-reaching political objectives that move through a spirited maniacal fight all with the foresight of building a new nation.   

And, yet, only one is fuelled by a personal lust, a hidden jealously, the nemesis, and the antagonist Aaron Burr (Joshua Henry).  But, abjectly, and subjectively, through the course of their relationship, Burr is bested by Hamilton (Michael Luwoye) at every conceivable turn. And yet Burr stays in the game much longer than he has a right to.   

Why is explained in Burr’s philosophy. 

Talk Less
Smile more
Don’t let them know what you’re against
Or what you’re forBurr

Unfortunately for Burr, this would be his undoing as his philosophy and language placed him persona non-grata in a bar among the likes of fashionable orators and doers like Marquis de Lafayette (Jordan Donica), Hercules Mulligan (Mathenee Treco) and John Laurens (Rebén J. Carbajal); each of them knowing what they want—liberty.

Burr, check what we got
Mr. Lafayette, hard rock like Lancelot
I think your pants look hot
Laurens, I like you a lot
Let’s hatch a plot blacker than the kettle callin’ the pot. – Hamilton

(Just a side note:  Ron Chernow, the writer of Hamilton the book, suggests that Hamilton may have had a complicated relationship with Laurens. The letters written by Hamilton were suggestive and indicated a desire for intimacy; in contrast, it appears that Laurens was unable to return, either emotionally or in writing, similar feelings.)

Hamilton, not immune to physical purity, is opened to liking Laurens but is pulled away by Angelica (Sabrina Sloan), who, from across the room sees a coruscation, a sparkle emanating from this man who was going up the stairs with another man. She approaches him and pulls him away from his endeavor.  

Angelica asks him about his family. She gathers much from that single pause, and instance, brief though it may have been, of Hamilton’s modest background and unspoken pains.  And so Angelica inaugurates Hamilton to her sister, Eliza (Julian K. Harriman).

And although Angelica knows her relationship with Hamilton cannot happen, she remains deeply in love with him. Peggy Schuyler (Amber Iman), a clement judge of nature, is there to keep her sisters in line and everyone else honest.  

Soon, everyone’s attention turns to the war currently raging.  Aaron Burr is in the room with George Washington (Isaiah Johnson); moments later, Hamilton enters the room.

As I was saying, sir,
I look forward to seeing your strategy play out. - Burr


Sir? - Burr

Close the door on your way out. – Washington


Wrong words, chosen carefully, eliminates Burr from any position with Washington during the un-winning stages of the Revolutionary War.   Hamilton, 22 years old at the time, still in the room, waits, immediately apologizes, and thinks he’s in a lot of trouble.

But Washington wants Hamilton as his right-hand man, which he offers with the simple giving of a pen. It is a strong symbolic gesture that’s given to a man whose strength is in the use of his words. Although not fully satisfied and still wanting to be out on the battlefront, Hamilton takes the position.

All the political operatives in this story, mostly Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison have an agenda, which falls within their political thinking and motivation for higher office. 

Hamilton had a temper to go along with his beliefs and he shows it at times.  It’s especially evident when Major General Charles Lee (Daniel Ching) goes after Washington, and Lee and Hamilton’s best friend, John Laurens, have a duel.

Washington learns of the duel after the fact and sends Hamilton home.

Scenic Designer, David Korins, provides us with a magnificent dark set. The base is of wood and ropes, a metaphor of ships and people coming to the Americas in the 18th century who settle into the places of commerce, businesses, bars, and other venues of social gathering. The huge revolving stage accentuates the people moving in the direction of building a new nation.

Paul Tazewel, Costume Designer, places a lot of symbolism on the dress of the ensemble dancers, with tightfitting undergarment and the women wearing a light bustier. All are draped in a light brown, a wash of color of Dutch hemp paper or other parchments of the day. The purpose to showcase the unsettling times, of paper and words flying. The black boots, worn by the men and women, are symbolic of the black ink – the method in which Hamilton, and others of the day, created galvanized thoughts on paper. The main characters are adorned in colorful hues that represent their station in life and the way life came to them. The work is magnificent, inspired, and wonderfully creative. 

Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography is genius and is inspired by the music that moves the choreography toward an overall objective. Along with being revolutionary (pun), it is evolutionary in the way it incorporates different styles of dance to complete this history, 18th century waltz, to ballet, swing, contemporary, hip hop, and a popping dance. At times, the revolving stage moves the characters back in time.  

Michael Luwoye as Alexander Hamilton was completely blocked by another actor downstage left when he said his name. Struggling to see the actor one waited to get reacquainted during the words of  “In New York you can be a new man.” Hamilton’s egalitarian beliefs stop short of freeing men of color in order to placate the south. Luwoye presents an impressive figure in the strength of the character and in voice and manner.

Julia K. Harriman, a standby for the many leads, went on as Eliza Hamilton on this night and did well. Stretching over the body of her son, Phillip, holding whatever life is left in his body, she takes Hamilton’s hand and thrust it away, a wonderful moment. That said, her overall intention, her objective, was subjective, which is the key for gathering the emotional support that an audience craves. (This is also a woman who had eight children with Hamilton.)  

Joshua Henry plays Aaron Burr. Burr has misgivings after he shoots Hamilton.  It is an interesting choice, full of fear, of killing a man so many admired.  But Burr has been trying to get rid of Hamilton since he met him; he is sinister and envious. In that pivotal moment, one wonders if there are other choices he should have employed. Henry gives the character heart and a kind of warmth despite the fact that Burr was indirectly responsible for killing Phillip Hamilton and then killing Hamilton.

Sabrina Sloan does a fine turn as Angelica Schuyler. Still it would have helped to see the moment when she realizes that she made the wrong choice.  We hear it in song but we don’t quite see it on stage. Sloan’s voice is spectacular and we get the truly emotional moments on stage through song.

Isaiah Johnson comes on strong as George Washington and never lets up.  His voice is superb; his manner expresses an inner as well as an outer strength. Overall, his work is a work of art that should not be missed.  

Jordan Donica plays both Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and does admirably well in both roles. Donica towers above the rest of the cast and the fro, as Jefferson, appears to place him another foot higher. He is impish as Jefferson, dancing when he has the goods on Hamilton. He is truly delightful in both roles with a commanding presence and a strong voice.   

Mathenee Treco has a grand time as Hercules Mulligan and James Madison both characters. He comes off as a bowling ball of a man knocking down the revolutionary pins with the easiest of discretions.  Acting, singing, and rapping should not be this much fun for one man.  

Rubén J. Carbajal is John Laurens and Philip Hamilton. There was a lot of truth to the portrayals of both roles.  Philip Hamilton came off as very small and very much a boy while John Laurens was a character different in complexity and manner. The work was inspiring.

Amber Iman was very sultry as Maria Reynolds, her voice has an underlying want, a dark opaque luster, accompanied by her delicate raillery, to get into a discomforting intimacy, played for whatever she wanted, and that was Hamilton.  She also portrayed Peggy Schuyler and was remarkably different in that role.

Rory O’Malley shines as King George.  His vocals were magnificent; he also provided the funniest highlights to the show. The King, who is out of touch, in England, wants his subjects to toe the line, all with the wave of his scepter.

Ryan Vasquez brings a nice touch to the characters he portrays—Philip Schuyler and the Doctor.  James Reynolds is also a fascinating character, costumed in dark brown colors and oddly dressed in a manner that stood out from the rest of the cast—18th century pimp perhaps?  There he stood, holding out his hands near his head, waiting for the money to come gently to him, without even asking. Nicely done.

Andrew Wojtal is Loyalist Samuel Seabury, American Episcopal, and not a big fan of Alexander Hamilton. Seabury was imprisoned in Connecticut for six weeks and by 1778 became loyal to the new government. But here he is, on top of a box, reading from a scroll although we did not know the man or his relationship to Hamilton. (Farmer Refuted, written by Hamilton, was a rebuttal to A.W. Farmer letters “A View of the Controversy between Great Britain and her Colonies” Seabury’s nom de plume.)

Daniel Ching plays Charles Lee and Raymond Baynard plays George Eacker the man who shoots and kills Phillip Hamilton.

Other members of the ensemble who gave spirit to the populace of the day are Dan Belnavis, Jennifer Geller, Sabrina Imamura, Lauren Kias, Jennifer Locke, Raven Thomas, and Keenan D. Washington.

Lin-Manuel Miranda woke up one night to the sounds of an American lullaby, haunting melodies, urging the words of freedom.

Raise a glass to freedom
Something they can never take away
No matter what they tell you.

Even in the dream, the plot suddenly begets personal nightmares, hardships, and people’s struggle to unify a nation.  Freedom comes at a price.  They sing about it with color: and fling the ideas that only a few whites were responsible that save the day for their kind.  This is an all-inclusive dream, an examination of what the world could be.  It is a never-ending quest for the colorful reality of one nation. Miranda provides us with that idea, that narrative.   

Thomas Kail’s direction is impressive.  There is never a moment where the space is not filled with activity.  Actors bring in props and set pieces and the action keeps moving, continuously, sometimes in slow motion, and without pause.  There is very little dialogue and most of the words are rapped or sung which leaves characters little time to develop a strong physical relationship, e.g. Hamilton with Laurens, Angelica, Eliza.  If you’ve read Ron Chernow’s book, you get glimpses of the relationships on stage as they whisk by in a matter of seconds. Time is a matter of an announcement, and it passes quickly without guessing that Hamilton had eight children with Eliza. 

And, as a side note, there seemed to be an emotional component missing of want which was physically and emotionally lacking on this night as characters moved about in song: Hamilton’s primary want is to help the nation.  There is also Angelica’s strong physical want for Hamilton, which one didn’t see, a reluctant want Hamilton has with Maria Reynolds, and a natural want for not losing Eliza.

Emotional clarity is also important: Angelica Schuyler immediately dumps Hamilton “looking for a mind at work” simply because of his station in life. (He was the mind, not the money.)  And then pawns him off on her unsuspecting sister, Eliza.  Angelica, still in love with Hamilton, marries John Barker Church (not in show), rich from selling goods to the Continental Army, and moves her, with his money to England with him.  

That said, the essential element is the driving force of Kail’s direction, one that reinforces Miranda’s vision by the diversity in casting.  It is one that conspicuously changes the narrative - that only stodgy old white men in powdered wigs, with their seditious cries, created this new nation. Change sometime comes in small increments, but that change is coming, and it is excitingly reinforced in this musical.

Lighting Design by Howell Binkley was remarkable as well as the Sound Design by Nevin Steinberg.

Charles G. LaPointe was responsible for the modern Hair and Wig Design, which at times forgets about time and space and wonderfully creative.

The Orchestra these days seems to minimal compared to the orchestras from the days I was employed at the Pantages but nevertheless they put out a great sound. They are as follows:

Julian Reeve – Conductor/Keyboard 1
Andrew Cerullo – Associate Conductor/Keyboard 2
John Mader – Drums
Kathleen Robertson – Violin
Adriana Zoppo – Concertmaster
Jody Rubin – Viola/Violin
Paula Fehrenbach – Cello
Trey Henry – Bass/Electric Bass/Key Bass
Paul Viapiano – Electric Guitar/Acoustic Guitar/Banjo
Wade Culbreath – Percussion/Keyboards
Brian Miller – Orchestra Contractor
Julian Reeve - Contractor

Run! Run! Run! And take someone who is on the cusp of political thinking.  Now playing in San Diego Civic Theatre through January 28, 2018.

If you like this, or hate it, or disagree with this - write a comment below.  Thank you. 

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