In London’s West End 2018: Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre (Review)
Fearless all-American musical completely deserving of its fandom and following.
LONDON – Taking on the subtitle ‘An American Musical’ is a bold move. After all, what exactly is it that makes something quintessentially American, a country built on colonisation and civil war? For Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s a surprisingly simple answer – going back to America’s very own roots to tell a tale of history, and in the case, the tale of American founding father Alexander Hamilton.
Directed by Thomas Kail, Hamilton is immortalised forever as ‘a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman’ in the musical’s opening, and the sung-through musical is fearless in every sense of the word, tackling a difficult and dry topic about the face on the back of every $10 bill and the man known as the Father of American Banking. Top that off with the decision to write a score that melds everything from rap to R&B, show tunes to hip hop, along with a deliberate choice to cast non-white actors as figures who were historically white, and you’ve got one musical that seems like it has everything going against it. How and why then, does Hamilton receive the accolades and adoration it has, becoming arguably one of the greatest musicals to have come out of America ever?
The answer boils down to one thing – quite simply, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a musical and lyrical genius. As cross-genre as the songs are, each one has been orchestrated to fit precisely the scenes and characters they’re sung by, with recurring leitmotifs throughout that become familiar as the musical progresses, not to mention irresistibly catchy. Miranda never minces his words, and the lyrics are challenging ones, with references to Shakespeare’s Macbeth to the ‘two-party system’, big ideas rolled into tight rhymes delivered at rapid-fire pace that has audiences hanging on to every word. But this only serves to invest audiences completely in the wit and wordplay displayed, keeping one engrossed in all that happens onstage from start to end.
In addition, one is left stunned by Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, always frenetic and exciting, with the ensemble performing visually arresting acrobatic feats and pausing in intricate tableaux, while Howell Binkley’s countless lighting cues in every number are a show in themselves, carefully mapped for maximum dramatic effect as characters are cast in shadow or spotlighted as they move around the concentric revolving stage, according to how each song shifts and moves, certainly one of the most difficult series of changes that requires utmost planning and design.
With its deliberate casting of minority actors, Hamilton also becomes more than just a historical biopic – it is urgent commentary on racism and inequality in characters such as abolitionist John Laurens (Cleve September, charming and suave), to the line ‘Immigrants, we get the job done’ by Frenchman Lafayette (energetic, fireball-like Jason Pennycooke) and Hamilton himself, receiving nothing but whoops and cheers from the entire theatre. The most prominent Caucasian character is King George, a caricature-like villain ready to crush and kill opposition in a hilarious, laugh out loud ditty (new cast member Jon Robyns does this splendidly, capturing a malicious whimsy to his every flick and prance).
As Hamilton himself, Jamael Westman is a pillar of strength as he sheds light on the enigmatic figure, a Caribbean immigrant who is every bit as flawed as he is brilliant, bringing out his charm, his wisdom and and his full range of emotions for his performance. Each time he engages in a cabinet debate against Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (Jason Pennycooke again, and Tarinn Callender, the quintessential sidekick and right-hand man), there is an electric spark in the air as he busts out rhymes and lays down the smack, his growing frustration as he sits at his writing desk all too evident as he spirals into sleepless work cycles. Almost in direct contrast to Hamilton, warning him to “talk less, smile more”, Sifiso Mazibuko shines as rival Aaron Burr, who, for all his ‘lack of principles’, delivers a stunningly human side to Hamilton’s would-be killer, aching with jealousy as he sings “The Room Where It Happens”, while delivering a particularly moving duet in “Dear Theodosia”, as both men reflect on the birth of their respective children, parallels yet worlds apart.
Hamilton doesn’t shirk on its female representation either, with all three Schuyler sisters (Courtney-Mae Briggs, Allyson Ava-Brown and Rachelle Ann Go) as worthy as any girl group when they launch into song in the eponymous “The Schuyler Sisters”, in sunny, joyous praise of New York. Allyson Ava-Brown in particular is gripping as Angelica Schuyler in her brief moments onstage as a woman who knows she can never be with Hamilton, her voice ringing out confident, sharp and resonant in a daring rendition of “Satisfied”. But it is Rachelle Ann Go as Eliza Hamilton who steals the show each time she appears onstage, the softness in her voice providing a powerful contrast to the male ones that dominate most of Hamilton. Shaped into a character with her own motivations, desires and sorrows, beyond simply acting as a wife to Hamilton, Go is a force to be reckoned with onstage as she delivers a heart-wrenching “Burn”, beatboxes even at one point, and ends the entire show with the soaring “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”, bringing a tear to our eyes with the sheer emotion she brings onstage,
Hamilton is a musical that was designed as risky as they come. But with a creative team that ensures everything is set up for success, and a strong cast that more than achieves what the musical sets out to do, Hamilton is elevated to a production that can and should see immense longevity and one that will go down in history as one of the greats. Hamilton is Lin-Manuel Miranda at his in the heights of his career, reclaiming and re-presenting the American story to simultaneously be a highly entertaining retelling of history, and a politically charged, socially significant and relevant phenomenon of a musical, fearless and nailing its high ambition in every scene, and demands a watch at least once in your life.
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy
Performance attended 3/12/18
Hamilton plays at the Victoria Palace Theatre, London. For tickets and more information, visit their website here. Be sure to book early and look out for new booking windows, as just about every night plays out to a full house.