If only my American history teacher taught with the same energy, passion and wit that Lin-Manuel Miranda brings to the tale of founding father Alexander Hamilton, I might have paid more attention in class.
Surely you have heard of the monumental success of Hamilton, a cultural phenomenon by any measure. The biographical musical won 11 Tony Awards as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and has been running on Broadway for almost four years to largely sold-out audiences, with many of its theatergoers paying ludicrously high prices to be in “the room where it happens.”
For the next month, that room is the Broward Center’s Au-Rene Theater, where the show demonstrates nightly that it deserves the avalanche of hype that Hamilton has garnered. In addition, the national touring company is a well-drilled, agile of foot and verbally nimble troupe, qualitatively on par with the Broadway production even though you’ve never heard of any of them before.
As Miranda and his frequent collaborator and director Thomas Kail have conceived the show, the cast is staunchly multi-cultural – George Washington is Asian, Thomas Jefferson is black and Hamilton is Hispanic, for instance – a reflection of the American people today rather than a bunch of white guys. By the same token, Miranda’s score is consciously eclectic – a stew of hip-hop, rap, rhythm and blues, pop, soul and conventional show tunes.
Basing the show on Ron Chernow’s well-researched biography of Hamilton, in the course of three hours it goes from the title character’s arrival in the United States from his native Caribbean land to his fatal duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s lifelong adversary. Along the way, he helped define and defend the Constitution by writing the majority of the Federalist Papers, designing the nation’s initial financial system as our first secretary of the Treasury and founding The New York Post newspaper.
On a personal level, he meets and becomes smitten with two affluent Schuyler sisters, and Anjelica steps aside to allow him to marry Eliza, with whom he has a son. Hamilton is a faithful husband, but only up to a point. So when a Maria Reynolds throws herself at him, he initiates an affair of convenience that nearly halts his political career.
As Miranda’s script emphasizes, winning a war for the nation’s independence is relatively easy, but governing is hard. So the second act of Hamilton is tonally much darker than the first, as our Founding Fathers founder. It is leavened only by the arrival of Thomas Jefferson (Kyle Scatliffe, who played the Marquis de Lafayette in Act One), a high energy, foppish rapper who avoided the war by dallying in Paris. With gusto, he debates Hamilton twice over the nitty-gritty of this emerging new nation. They are natural political opponents, until Jefferson runs against Burr for president and Hamilton must decide which of philosophical foe to endorse.
As Hamilton, Joseph Morales is short of stature, but he has a commanding stage presence and a forceful singing voice. The audience is on his side from his initial rock star entrance, though its allegiance will be sorely tested by this ambitious man with plenty of frailties. The show is called Hamilton, but in many ways the main character is Burr, the tragic hero all too aware that he will be remembered most for being the man who killed Hamilton, his comrade in arms and ultimately his arch-enemy. Nik Walker, too, has charisma to spare and he handles such earworm musical numbers as “Wait For It” and “The Room Where It Happens” with authority.
Marcus Choi is not immediately persuasive as the father figure of the country, George Washington, but he certainly handles well his second-act showstopper, “One Last Time,” the president’s farewell address. If there is one role designed as a scene stealer it is King George III (a snide Jon Patrick Walker), who keeps popping in to belittle those ragtag rebels, and is particularly incredulous over John Adams ascending to the American presidency. And while the women take a back seat in the show, Shoba Narayan is very affecting as both the coquettish young Eliza Schuyler and, later, as tragedy strikes her family twice at the hands of duelists.
Even more than in Miranda’s earlier musical, In the Heights, director Kail keeps the show in constant kinetic motion, with the best use of a central revolving stage since Les Misérables. He is aided by choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, whose modern dance moves are as expressive as they are anachronistic.
Only time will tell what lasting effect such a potential landmark show as Hamilton will have on the theater and what other inventions the still young Miranda has in store for us. The Broadway in Fort Lauderdale staff reports that there are still some seats available for this engagement – more in the latter weeks – and there is a daily lottery for 40 seats priced at $10 each. Hey, it’s worth a shot.
HAMILTON, Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 S.W. Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Through Sunday, Jan. 20. $78-$498. Call 954-462-0222 or visit www.browardcenter.org.