Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:
One of the key factors of David Korins’ stage design for Hamilton is exposed brickwork and wooden walkways. It signifies a work in progress, a modern yet timeless metaphor for the construction of the United States of America at the end of the 18th century.
The Victoria Palace finds itself extending that metaphor outwards at the moment: after a delayed re-opening, the existing audience areas have been completely refurbished and laid out in gold hues that echo Hamilton’s marketing materials. Outside, the newly revealed theatre fascia peeks out from a building still enshrouded in scaffolding and protective cladding.
This is a work in progress, Cameron Mackintosh’s latest acquisition yells – one which has much further to go, but which has a self-assured confidence.
And what a musical to echo that sentiment as the theatre reopens. The success of Hamilton on Broadway has reached legendary proportions, while the Broadway cast recording reached double platinum status within a year.
With demand and popularity so high – even, and especially, from people who have yet to see it – no stage production could hope to live up to the hype surrounding the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical from Lin-Manuel Miranda.
And yet, Hamilton tries its hardest to do so – and even when it does not quite succeed, it still manages to be one of the most visually arresting, and interesting, stories to grace the West End.
It helps that the source material has so much to offer. There is more incident in the show’s first two minutes of narration than in many full length shows: teenager Alexander Hamilton, an illegitimate orphan born on an otherwise unremarkable tiny Caribbean island, excels intellectually and becomes the administrative clerk of a slave-trading business, before setting sail for New York and the dream of a new life – all before he reaches his 20th birthday.
All that is set out in the first song by Giles Terera, whose Aaron Burr doubles as both Hamilton’s rival and the show’s narrator. Although Burr – who from the outset is revealed as Hamilton’s ultimate killer – is one of the show’s great antagonists, Terera’s portrayal is an amiable one. Initially at least, we are invited to consider his style – thoughtful, considered, outwardly noncommittal – as a valid, if slightly dull, alternative to Hamilton’s ebullient, impetuous verbosity.
But it is that very verbosity which drives both Hamilton the character and Hamilton the musical. Miranda had used fast-talking raps in his previous works, both in the musical In The Heights and his work with improv group Freestyle Love Supreme.
Hamilton takes this work to extremes, eschewing a traditional book and instead telling the story almost solely through hip-hop, R&B and rap songs.
The decision to cast all the principal roles with actors of a diverse range of minority ethnic backgrounds emphasises how all these characters, during what Miranda terms “the afterbirth of a nation”, were all themselves immigrants to the nascent USA. But it is also an emphasis that this is a story of the foundation of all America, not just white America, and ownership of the history is not the sole preserve of those with white European ancestry.
As a result, this is a musical which looks and sounds unlike anything else on Broadway or in the West End. Alex Lacamoire’s orchestrations lay further references on Miranda’s own jackdawing of musical theatre and hip-hop stylings, the sound jumping from Biggie Smalls and Beastie Boys references to Sondheim and other musical influences.
Some of the best examples are a series of appearances by Michael Jibson’s King George, whose breezy satirical takes on the tumult across the pond have more than the whiff of Newley and Bricusse about them.
By keeping all the storytelling to a series of contained songs without any interlinking dialogue, at times it can feel as if we are seeing only the surface of many of the characters.
Jamael Westman’s Alexander is an exception, of course – a combination of both his omnipresence and a self-assurance that makes it hard to comprehend that Westman is barely older than Hamilton was when he boarded the boat to New York.
Least well served are the women, due in part to the patriarchal nature of 18th century America. The greatest female presence comes in the form of the Schuyler sisters – most notably Angelica (Rachel John), the older sister who first falls for the penniless Alexander, but who knows she must marry for money.
Maintaining an intense, but largely epistolary, relationship with her brother-in-law, John’s Angelica acts as a voice of conscience, chastising Alexander for neglecting his family.
Compared to her, Rachelle Ann Go’s Eliza, the sister who becomes Alexander’s wife, makes less of an impact, at least until ‘Burn’, when Alexander’s public infidelity causes her to set fire to his letters to her.
And while that is an example of some of the intensity of Hamilton’s personal life, including the tragic loss of his son Philip (Cleve September) in a duel, it is the political which attracts the greatest focus.
Debating the finer points of federal finance policy might not seem the most appealing of entertainment topics, it is Miranda’s gift of reframing these formative years of the USA in the context of modern entertainment styles that really makes such scenes zing.
Cabinet room discussions become rap battles, really coming alive with the introduction of the flamboyant Thomas Jefferson (Jason Pennycooke), who swans in from France purple-clad, primped and preening like a post-Revolutionary Prince.
Any fears audience-goers may have that the finer points of the War of Independence or of the early days of US federalism may be overlooked can be allayed: Miranda’s fast-paced but clear lyrics detail just enough information to follow the legalities and logistics, allowing for each number to concentrate on the entertainment value.
Andy Blankenbuehler choreographs a tight ensemble well, although it is the costumes designed by Paul Tazewell that will stick in the memory, Hamilton doing for tight-fitting waistcoats and breeches what Chicago did for black mesh and fishnets.
One of the overriding themes of the musical is that one cannot choose one’s own legacy, that it is always somebody else who must tell your story after you have gone.
Alexander Hamilton’s story was on the verge of being forgotten. But thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, and biographer Ron Chernow whose book on Hamilton inspired this project, America’s early history comes alive as never before.
And what they have achieved for Hamilton, Miranda and his team also do for the musical genre: revitalised and excited a whole new generation of fans.
It is now the industry’s job to ensure that the originality, vision and accomplishments of Hamilton are mirrored throughout future productions.
Photo: Matthew Murphy