Reviewed by Katherine Damisch
No one can say any more about the story and soundtrack of Hamilton that has not already been said, and readers will not find an attempt here. The show has become a cultural sensation the likes of which Broadway has not seen since The Phantom of the Opera, and maybe not even then. The theatre community and pop art in general will feel Hamilton’s reverberations for lifetimes to come. Such a singular phenomenon requires a team of artists with enough vision and talent to take on the task of bringing it to life. To say the least, the Chicago cast and crew rose to the occasion.
Entire reviews could be written about each member of the cast. Lin-Manuel Miranda passed the baton of the titular character to Miguel Cervantes, who completely nails it. Watch for the subtleties in his performance as Hamilton evolves from awkward misfit teenager to eager soldier to savvy politician; you can’t even put your finger on what’s different about him, but the changes are undeniable. Joshua Henry inherits Leslie Odom, Jr’s Tony-winning performance as Burr, but Henry absolutely makes it his own. His Burr personifies a long wall: unwavering and guarded, but walk along it long enough and the cracks will show. Both men expertly display the yin and yang relationship that leads to the fated final confrontation.
Alexander Gemigani is a master of subtlety as King George. He barely moved in his rendition of “You’ll Be Back”, yet had the audience roaring with laughter. They were enraptured every subsequent time the King graced the stage. Ari Afsar beams earnestly as Eliza, complimented by Karen Olivo’s stoic, yet tragic Angelica. Chris De’Sean Lee excels better as Lafeyette than as Jefferson, but still played up the humor and swagger every chance that he got.
However, the true star of the show outshines all the names listed above: the tireless, brilliant ensemble. Upon listening to the Hamilton soundtrack, it may not be clear how ensemble-heavy this show is onstage. But the company, in part or in full, remains onstage at least 75% of the show. Either they set the scene as soldiers and citizens, provide the rich harmonies the score demands, or place props and sets in the space (but always in a visually pleasing way that and works with the plot). Many times, they just gaze at the action from the periphery, like the eyes of all Americans, past and present, watching their country’s fate unfold in the hands of those few, flawed men and women.
Every company member is a true triple-threat and every one would be a lead in any other show in America. They move fluidly in and out of each scene, like cogs in a human machine, giving the show a feeling of urgent, constant motion. (Seeing it from the mezzanine, where one can catch every tiny facial expression but also see the whole cast move as one body, is a wonder to behold.) I cannot fathom the complexity and rigor of the rehearsal process this must have been. The work of director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler appears indistinguishable; they skillfully blur where one’s territory ends and the other’s begins. The juxtaposition between “Helpless” and “Satisfied” best displays their joint mastery. Someone has to film this production and give a side-by-side comparison between those two numbers; the recreation of that fateful night from two different perspectives syncs just that well.
Not only is the Chicago rendition of Hamilton a wonder of performance, it is a technical marvel as well. Howell Binkley must have put into place at least 500 light cues, many of which must be precisely placed to highlight the tiniest moments in the music. The crew executed them all seamlessly through every scene. Like the Broadway production, this one employs a two-part turntable (like a bullseye). However, unlike traditional stagings of Les Miserables where the turntable draws attention to itself, this one is not quite so flashy. The cast and minimal set pieces simply rotate so the audience can get a 360 degree view of how the sometimes fast-paced story plays out. More often than not, the action engrosses so fully that the motion fades into the background, unnoticed.
Chicago’s Hamilton may for now only play for those willing to cough up the big bucks, but hopefully as the buzz dies down, it will eventually become accessible to all. Americans from all backgrounds should have the pleasure of basking in this ultimate collaboration of live artists. After all, Hamilton, like the country he founded, created his own destiny out of nothing, and had to work with different types of people along the way. We need that message now more than ever, and Chicago has the extraordinary fortune of being one of the first, and likely the best, to broadcast it to the world.