The biggest cultural phenomena in the last decade has finally made its way to the Twin Cities. The 11-time Tony Award winning American Musical, HAMILTON opened this past week at the historic Orpheum Theatre by Hennepin Theatre Trust. Despite listening to its incredible score and lyrics for the past two years, I had never seen it live, until now. Yes, I was finally in “the room where it happened” and it was without a doubt one of the most incredible things I’ve witnessed. This non-stop 2-and-a-half-hour musical is a speeding train that never once lets the already high energy fall.
HAMILTON is the real story of America’s Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was an immigrant from the West Indies. As he joined in the Revolutionary War, when the United States won its independence from Great Britain, he quickly became George Washington’s right-hand man. His life “turns upside down” when he meets his wife and climbs the ranks even more to become the nation’s first Treasury Secretary. The production also follows the lives of many of his foes like Aaron Burr, his wife Eliza and her sister Angelica along with a few other historical figures along the way.
The show has a very rich history on its creation and a fantastic journey of how far it’s come. It really is a testament to what one person can do as Lin Manuel Miranda wrote the book, lyrics and music. Did I mention he also starred in it on Broadway in the title role? The show officially opened on Broadway in August of 2015 and won 11 Tony awards including Best Musical., Book, Choreography, and Director. Miranda was also the recipient of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for HAMILTON. The show currently has two touring productions, an extended engagement in Chicago and open-ended runs on Broadway and in London’s West End.
As you can tell, I’m blushing already. The mere writing of this show is a feature in itself as it tells the story of what America was but through the lense of a modern convention. With the exception of a few songs, the entire book is made up of sung-through rap lyrics. This also includes a debate between politicians in the style of a rap battle with mic drops and all. David Korin’s scenic design allows the actors to play across two levels while also allowing them to easily and accessible appear and disappear for various scenes. It’s important for the set to be able to keep up with the face past lyrics as the show virtually has no moments for scene changes. Actors take pieces on and off the stage to swiftly help distinguish each scene. The actual structures of the set feature bricks and almost an unfinished look to symbolize the creation and building of a new nation after the Revolutionary War in between Act I and II.
The set adds another element of surprise to audience members when the actors truly begin to spin on stage. The set features three spinning circles of wood that are built into the floor. Korin states that they symbolize the “cyclical relationship between Aaron Burr and Hamilton, where they are basically spirling around each other their entire careers and lives.” The set is elevated by the astonishing lighting design by Howell Binkley as well.
As someone who works in the arts and in marketing, we hear the word innovation a lot. The word innovation has become watered down with everyone claiming they are however this is truly the epitome of innovative theatre. It’s different and exciting. The 25 person ensemble, made up of a larger 39 person cast including swings, is a knockout. What they perform eight times a week is truly something bigger than a work of art. It is bigger than a history lesson or just some musical adaptation. It’s an anomaly of what musical theatre is and these performers help bring it to life every night. Each actor serves a purpose for every single moment. Many of the scenes feature them even if they aren’t the center of the attention.
The role of Alexander Hamilton is in good hands with Joseph Morales taking the lead. The actor - who previously played the role in Chicago - has found nuances in the role that Miranda may have not. These two play the role differently and I appreciate that. Morales never once falls into the Hamilton effect in portraying the “10 Dollar Founding Father” just like its creator. He incorporates a little more Broadway style voice during belts when it is needed and manages to spit out rhymes faster than the orchestra can keep up. He generously lets others shine when they need to but also commands the audience's attention when it should be on him.
The show doesn’t just focus on Hamiltons rise in fame but also the relationship between Burr and him. Nik Walker plays Aaron Burr as a bit more sleazier version than the original actor -- Leslie Odom Jr. who also won a Tony award for his portrayal -- and hits the nail on the head. He slithers across the stage taking advantage of every moment he can through impressive songs and even in - what felt like the old style Broadway - dance numbers like “The Room Where It Happened,” which is also a huge fan favorite. He is calculated with every move he makes. What is better than Walker on stage as Burr or Morales as Hamilton? It is when these two have scenes together that the show truly comes alive as they contrast each other brilliantly.
King George is played by Jon Patrick Walker and is comedically featured in a classic rule of three style with three songs. Walker shows the King as a whiny brat instead of destructive dictator which managed to get an exuberant amount of laughter from the audience. Each song he sings - which is one of the few songs that doesn’t feature rap - is written almost as a break up letter to his former love, in this case the settlers of America. Each song is more hilarious than the next and surprisingly catch to sing along to in the car.
Other highlights include Kyle Scatliffe who plays both Marquis De Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. He is a dynamic force on stage and is responsible for a large majority of the energy that the audience probably felt through the show. He was incredible. Marcus Choi plays George Washington and surprised me greatly with his incredible tenor belt in the second act. Nyla Sostre plays both Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds. At a point I didn’t even realize they were the same actress because of how different they each are. Her voice was fragile and nervous as Peggy but confident, sexy and sultry as Maria.
The two leading women in the show are unexpectedly my favorite things about it. Shoba Narayan plays Eliza Hamilton, his wife and previously one of the three Schuyler sisters. Narayan is delicate but confident and strong as she goes through one of the biggest character arches throughout the show. Her voice soars in numbers like “Helpless” when the audience discovers how they met. The combination of this song and the next “Satisfied” - which is song by Angelica Schuyler - is to me the true testament of how brilliant Miranda’s writing is. After Eliza finished, Angelica rewinds to when Eliza met Hamilton but from her point of view. You discover that she also has fallen madly in love with him. I’ve listened to these two songs probably the most out of the soundtrack and it is mesmerizing and genius when you see it in person. Ta’rea Campbell is multi-talented through this song whether she unleashing her feelings through passionate rapping or a skillfully placed belt.
Just like a cannon going through a window during the Revolutionary War, this show shattered every expectation I had. Many are nervous going into it as they know the story and a large majority of the songs but that certainly did not ruin the experience I had. Seeing something like this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. The show has turned not only Broadway but also the world upside down. It’s truly ingenious, innovative and unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
HAMILTON plays at the Orpheum Theatre by Hennepin Theatre Trust now through Oct. 7. Tickets can be purchased on Ticketmaster or by entering the Hamilton Digital Lottery (more information can be found by clicking the button below).