The nation’s founding fathers have returned victorious to the capital in Hamilton (★★★★★). And the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical’s own founding father was in the Opera House to witness the long-awaited Kennedy Center debut of this phenomenal Broadway production that’s made history of its own.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote Hamilton‘s book, music, and lyrics, appeared to be first to his feet to lead the standing ovation following an electrifying opening night performance. It was high praise duly earned by the cast and production of a touring company that seemed perfectly at home, and perfectly in sync.
Led by Austin Scott’s commanding but corruptible Alexander Hamilton and Nicholas Christopher’s silken interpretation of Aaron Burr, the man who killed Hamilton in a duel, the show raps and rhymes American history with an uncanny flair for mining gold from the tremendous life story of one “bastard orphan.”
Inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2005 best-selling book Alexander Hamilton, Miranda’s musical infuses emotion and insight throughout a score that’s as efficient in delivering story as it is a delight to hear sung and played live. Director Thomas Kail has constructed a smartly executed succession of set-pieces that showcases each song for individual impact, and it adds up to an impactful epic.
On their own, the songs are singable, danceable, and memorable. Together, however, they capture with profound clarity and humor the disparate voices of Hamilton, Burr, Hamilton’s wife Eliza (Julia K. Harriman) and her sister Angelica (Sabrina Sloan), George Washington (Carvens Lissaint), King George (Peter Matthew Smith), Marquis de Lafayette (Bryson Bruce), and other period heroes and giants.
Of course, though the show captures voices of history, it famously does not recreate the likeness of many of these figures. The casting of predominantly non-white actors to portray the colonial powdered-wig figures diverts Hamilton from the staid track of period reenactment into a sharper trajectory of vital commentary on communities of resistance, both then and now.
Depicting the boldness and courage of rebels seizing their independence sets a pretty high standard of commitment, yet the production locates a common thread between that revolutionary spirit and the tenacity of these performers. In the signature song “My Shot,” Hamilton, Lafayette, and their comrades sing of a new nation that’s “young, scrappy, and hungry” — much like the cast themselves. Bruce is a leaping light as Lafayette, the Revolution’s “hard rock like Lancelot,” and he’s no less amusing as Thomas Jefferson, breaking open the second act with the fabulous “What’d I Miss?”
Harriman, her dulcet voice alternately soaring and subdued, presents an Eliza who loves Alexander utterly but doesn’t sacrifice herself to his failings. Cascading through the joyful girl-group harmonies of “Helpless,” or the hurt and anger in “Burn,” Harriman centers the show’s bittersweet romance.
Meanwhile, Christopher’s fire sets ablaze the scintillating tale of Burr’s Salieri-like presence in Hamilton’s life, and at the dawn of our nation. With an arch inflection, he can convey the politician at his worst. Leading the gorgeous choruses of “Wait for It,” he reveals the man at his most vulnerable.
Burr’s songs, and the entire score, reveal more than just character, but also Miranda’s deeply felt admiration for, and fascination with, his subject. The artist feels powerfully present in lyrics like “How do you write like you’re running out of time? Write day and night like you’re running out of time?”
Alexander Hamilton bore a restless, relentless energy that Miranda has tapped into willfully and quite successfully. The compositions reflect a practically unerring ear for synthesizing pop, hip-hop, R&B, Broadway, and dexterous narrative into a stirring, cohesive blend.
And in this touring iteration, orchestra conductor Julian Reeve leads a musical ensemble that relays that remarkable sound beautifully. The music paves the way forward for an entire production that feels classic and iconoclastic, historical and hip. Even scenic designer David Korins’ lofty, bare-brick set seems to place the cast somewhere between the 18th-century past and backstage anywhere right now. Paul Tazewell’s Revolutionary-era costumes pop like the lushest finery, yet fit like current fashion, as Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington and company march with millennial swagger into war, cabinet skirmishes, and rap battles alike. They embody radiant new versions of the old guard.
Alexander Hamilton’s story is a uniquely American tale of a freedom fighter’s fervor to prove that any one person with a dream can make a huge difference. Hamilton the musical proves that one artist can make a huge difference simply by reminding us that the American dream of liberty and self-determination exists for everyone to share, not just rich white guys.
“America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me,” Hamilton raps near the show’s end. “You let me make a difference, a place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints.”
Hamilton runs through September 16, at Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $99 to $625. Tickets are being released daily for upcoming performances. There is a four-ticket limit per household. Standing room may be available on a performance by performance basis, beginning two hours prior to curtain. When available, standing room may only be purchased in person at the Kennedy Center Box Office. Tickets are $49 each, limit 2 per person. Call 202-467-4600, or visit kennedy-center.org.