Many audience members for touring Broadway shows probably wonder, “But is it as good as in New York?” and the answer for “Hamilton” is, “No.”
It must be tempting to calcify a musical, particularly one as megasuccessful as “Hamilton,” and we’ve certainly seen examples here of roadshows that try to duplicate, beat by beat, the originals. That’s not happening with the hip-hop-based story of the loves and ambitions of Mr. Face-on-the-$10-Bill, “Hamilton,” whose producers know a show only lives if its actors are encouraged to find something vital and new in it.
That starts with Alexander Hamilton, Joseph Morales, the cast member who, on the surface, most resembles the actor who created the role (and the whole show), Lin-Manuel Miranda. As depicted in the musical, inspired by Ron Chernow’s bestselling biography, the title character is a brash and tactless orphan who works his way into General George Washington’s inner circle and, by marrying well-connected Eliza Schuyler, into New York’s high society. He could come off as a creep but Morales makes him likeably modest, his soaring tenor finding musical colors you won’t hear on the cast album.
“Hamilton” works only if its Aaron Burr is Hamilton’s equal, and this production has that. Nik Walker’s witty take on Burr is sleazier, less elegant than Leslie Odom Jr.’s was in the original production. Walker reveals early on that Burr, whose rise to power mirrored Hamilton’s, is a schemer who believes only in himself. He’s an ironic snake from the get-go, which makes it entertaining to follow his machinations and devastating when his illusions are stripped away. It all comes together in his showstopping “The Room Where It Happens,” which feels like both Broadway and church, in the best possible way.
This production’s boldest choices are made by Jon Patrick Walker, whose King George III is not an arch, over-it autocrat but a whiny baby who has learned that his lover (i.e., America) dumped him and who can’t even. It’s a big, hilarious tantrum of a performance and, with King George only simpering on for three quick songs, Walker is smart to realize he can get away with a lot.
Marcus Choi’s Washington is on the opposite end of the performing spectrum. His is a quiet, authoritative rendering of a man who knows himself better than anyone else on stage. Choi’s work is understated, hitting full power only in Washington’s “One Last Time,” but his dignity anchors the show, particularly in a moving sequence when Hamilton challenges his father figure, shouting, “Call me ‘son’ one more time!”
Ta’Rea Campbell is also exceptional as Angelica Schuyler, Hamilton’s sister-in-law and, perhaps, the love of his life. Campbell provides a calm center right up to her blistering, fast-rapping “Satisfied,” which she positions at the midpoint between an operatic aria and Nicki Minaj’s iconic rap for Kanye West’s “Monster.”
The production looks exactly like it did on Broadway, with one upgrade. Maybe it’s because it’s my second time and I knew what to expect, but the choreography, which previously struck me as too literal, now seems perfect, accentuating and focusing the ginormous story of “Hamilton.” Really, the only flaws I can find are that Desmond Sean Ellington raps too muddily to be understood in the first act as Hercules Mulligan (a standby, Ellington performed on opening night instead of the regular Mulligan, Fergie L. Philippe). And it is ridiculously disruptive to start the second act when literally one-third of theatergoers have not made it back to their seats.
One slight disappointment newcomers to the much-hyped show may experience is that it’s not quite as — sorry — revolutionary as they’ve heard. Despite the innovative concept and clever touches like turning the Declaration of Independence into a song lyric, “Hamilton” is, it turns out, just a musical, one that’s structured a lot like “Les Miserables,” with Burr as Javert to Hamilton’s Jean Valjean. But what’s breathtaking about “Hamilton” is how expertly it does all the things a musical can do, from catchy songwriting to visual moments that transcend the power of words.
Watching this talented and diverse cast, I kept thinking that Manuel’s insistence that this story of yesterday should look like America looks today has given us a chance to enjoy performers who, as recently as 10 years ago, would not have been considered to play our very white Founding Fathers and Mothers. In fact, the show’s concept essentially says that, although this story seems to take place in the past, it’s really the present, when we’re realizing the fragility of the values these statesmen gave their lives for, when we’re still struggling to realize the self-evident truth that all men (and women) are created equal.
chris.hewitt@startribune. com • 612-673-4367 • Twitter: @HewittStrib