Playhouse Square is not throwing away its shot at giving Clevelanders the coolest history lesson ever told about our Founding Fathers. The national tour of HAMILTON is playing on the Keybank State Theatre stage now through January 15, 2023, and even someone who never liked history in school (this author included) will be impressed with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s game-changing production, which originally hit Broadway in August of 2015.
According to a press release, HAMILTON is “the story of America then, told by America now. Featuring a score that blends hip-hop, jazz, R&B and Broadway, HAMILTON has taken the story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton and created a revolutionary moment in theatre—a musical that has had a profound impact on culture, politics, and education. With book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, direction by Thomas Kail, and choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler… it is based on Ron Chernow’s acclaimed biography. It has won Tony®, Grammy®, and Olivier Awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and an unprecedented special citation from the Kennedy Center Honors.”
The musical is a high-energy ride about the genius of immigrant Alexander Hamilton (Pierre Jean Gonzalez) as he rises from poor orphan all the way up to becoming the right-hand man of President George Washington (Marcus Choi), while balancing his family relationships with his wife Eliza (Nikisha Williams) and her sister Angelica (Ta’Rea Campbell), with his passion for our evolving United States of America. His friends John Laurens, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Hercules Mulligan (Elijah Malcomb, Warren Egypt Franklin, and Desmond Sean Ellington, respectively) are his ride-or-die companions in philosophy and in battle. Aaron Burr (Jared Dixon) is a smooth-talking frenemy who hides in the shadows of political ambiguity in order to serve his own purposes.
These performers are all skilled, committed, and passionate in their roles. While the tour actors are not copies of the original Disney+ version of HAMILTON that stars Lin-Manuel Miranda, Christopher Jackson, Leslie Odom Jr., Phillipa Soo, etc., they bring their own layers and spirit to this tour. Filled with powerful songs and frenetically energized choreography, the cast embodies the towering souls of these historical giants and keeps the voice of history alive.
Inspired by the book “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow, Miranda has masterfully crafted this story with a war chest of music that transcends time and culture. The talented cast brings the score and movement to life with bombastic joy while the intense choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler swirls around the stage in a constant motion. The complex dancing includes inspiration from “Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake … Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse*.”
The moments in the production range from tender to tumultuous. Gonzalez is a natural Hamilton, bringing a blend of rambunctious enthusiasm and “scrappy” likeability to the role. His vocals are confident and engaging, with songs like “My Shot” and “Hurricane” engaging the audience with his intensity. His quest for country and contentment are always at odds, and his journey is epic. Who’s not rooting for this hungry underdog?
Jared Nixon’s character of Aaron Burr is not, that’s for sure. Nixon plays Burr slyly and smoothly, like a patient cat waiting to pounce. “Talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” He gives Burr the proper pomp to the persona, and his vocals are slick and superb. His presentation of “Wait For It” is full of jealous longing and expectation, while his vocals in “Dear Theodosia” are wrought with gentle tenderness and wonder. His overall delivery is a nice cross of technical power and control.
The trio of Elijah Malcomb, Warren Egypt Franklin, and Desmond Sean Ellington as John Laurens, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Hercules Mulligan (respectively) is fierce. The trio plus Gonzalez forms a high-energy quartet of brotherly love and loyalty – a group with mad skills on the battlefield and in song. “Raise a glass to the four of us, tomorrow there’ll be more of us” is a toast sung in “The Story of Tonight” celebrating the friendship of the four as they look forward to revolution.
Additional respect must be given to Warren Egypt Franklin for his lightning-fast delivery in “Guns and Ships,” as well as for his flamboyantly entertaining portrayal of Thomas Jefferson. The showmanship aspect alone in “What’d I Miss” is a show-stealer (and let’s also mention his dapper purple suit)!
Nikisha Williams and Ta’Rea Campbell make up the dynamic sister-duo of Eliza and Angelica Schuyler (respectively). While Campbell’s dynamic belt voice and large presence give Angelica a logical yet loving spirit, Williams’ bubbly and dedicated rendition of the hopeful Eliza is wrapped into a smooth and emotional delivery. Both ladies (and Peggy!) successfully show the Schuyler sisters’ dedication to each other and to family. And Williams breaks hearts with her touching rendition of songs like “Burn” and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.”
The role King George is always a crowd-pleaser, and Neil Haskell’s interpretation of the pouting monarch is everything it can and should be. As a unique treat, audiences will also get to witness the reign of Cleveland-native Rory O’Malley in this role. The Broadway veteran will re-take the throne on December 19th for the rest of the run in town, with Haskell’s last performance being December 18th.
The only area of this amazing production that leaves the want for more is Marcus Choi as George Washington. The role requires heavy-lifting in both acting and singing, and it seems as if Choi was holding back for some of the performance the night of the review. His efforts are absolutely well above-average, but this reviewer is an avid Christopher Jackson fan (the original G.W.), finding it hard to imagine anyone else in the charismatic role. Choi doesn’t appear to be incapable of the job – his final vocals in “One Last Time” elicit goosebumps, and that song performance alone makes his time on stage worth every moment.
You will absolutely, 100% no doubt want to be “In the Room Where it Happens.” The 2.5 hour experience is worth it with the talented company, transportive design elements, and a memorable score that will leave crowds “Helpless” with delight. Special nods to the hard-working orchestra, as well!
HAMILTON is in town through January 15, 2023 at the Keybank State Theatre. Tickets range from $39-$249 and can be purchased at www.playhousesquare.org.
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*Dance Australia, “Artists” – https://www.danceaustralia.com.au/artists/meet-andy-blankenbuehler-choreographer-of-hamilton