The day before Hamilton opened in Houston, a number of my colleagues and I discussed our fantasy critique for the production. The review we all wish we could hand into our editors and call it a day. It would be one sentence long and go something like this: Yes the show is ridiculously amazing and the sound at the Hobby Center is either, A. Horrible like it usually is, sadly undermining this ground-breaking musical, B. Better than usual, thank goodness we could actually hear most of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s astoundingly intelligent/linguistically buoyant lyrics or, C. Crystal clear and hallelujah for that, because this is a musical where every word, every inflection, every aside is worth savoring.
I mean, what else needs to be said? Actually review Hamilton? Comment on the infectious music that seamlessly mashes up genres so that we get hip-hop, R&B and jazzy numbers mixed in with more traditional Broadway melodies? Mention how the cadence of the lyrics, rap or otherwise feel like a modern Shakespearean-metered vernacular? Talk about why the deliberate use of performers of color to tell the story of the American Revolution is so profound and necessary? Discuss how choreography that includes everything from club moves to rap strutting to traditional ballet and back again is the perfect encapsulation of the history of American movement? Address how the lighting and costumes meld together to create a beautifully neutral palate that lets the multicultural faces of the cast shine even more brightly?
There is literally nothing to be said about this stratospherically successful musical that hasn’t already been done a trillion times before in everything from print reviews to Ph.D. papers. Hamilton is a masterpiece that at this point shouldn’t be dissected, but instead should just be enjoyed.
And therein, to my mind anyway, lies the job of the critic as the touring production of Hamilton finally makes its landing in Houston. Not to make a case for the show itself, but instead to see if what the show has to offer actually works in Houston. Can you take perfection on the road and make it work?
Let’s go back to the fantasy review and the issue of sound. It’s what anyone who’s ever seen a show in at Sarofim Hall was most concerned about. But either the Hobby Center crew finally figured out how to do it right or the Hamilton folks schooled them, because damn if it wasn’t the first time I’ve ever been to a show in this space where I could actually hear the lyrics over the music. Well most of them, but let’s leave that for later.
What about the quality of the touring show itself? Is it as good as the New York production (yes I’ve seen it. With the original cast. Don’t hate me, it’s my job)? The answer to that is 99 percent yes. If you are one of the lucky Houstonians who managed to secure a seat (and BTW there are still tickets available throughout the run and of course there is the $10 lottery which you can read more about then you can rest assured that this superbly executed tour is, as far as I can tell, an exact replica of the Broadway production.
The industrial three-story exposed brick and wooden staircase/catwalk set looks exactly the same. The double turntable stage that spins the action around is there. The same bare minimum props are brought on and off the stage as needed, never lingering to clutter. Present is the switcheroo staging and lighting that at one moment has the set full to the brim with cast members and then, with a poof, an intimate scene with just two or even one performer holding our hearts in their voices.
And what performers this touring cast offers up. Even when things don’t go as planned. Two of the show’s leads, Alexander Hamilton and his bride, Eliza, were played by understudies at the media performance. But without the insert in our program to tell us so, no one would have known that Edred Utomi and Dorcas Leung (a Houston native) weren’t part of the first line cast. Utomi injects Hamilton with all the nerdy, aggressive, verbose, unyielding energy that the role calls for. Vocally he not only rings all the bells, but it was almost eerie at times how close his higher pitched, clear, yet somewhat shallow voice, sounds like a dead ringer for Lin-Manuel himself when he played the role. Leung, while a tad stiff physically as Eliza, completely won us over in her more emotional musical numbers where many a sniff could be heard, including my own.
If there’s a contest for the best voices in this cast, there’s no question that it’s a three-way tie between Sabrina Sloan as Angelica, Eliza’s older sister and Hamilton’s platonic soul-mate, Carvens Lissaint, a majestic George Washington and the show’s most popular comic relief, King George played with cheeky piss and vinegar by Peter Matthew Smith. All three have their show-stopping numbers (and trust me there are more show stoppers in this show than you can count) but only one has an introduction that embodies what Hamilton is all about.
By the time George Washington is brought into the action, we’re about halfway through Act 1. In other words, we’ve seen white historical figures played by performers of color for more than minutes already. But there’s just something about the grand entrance of the Founding Father and first President of the United States played by a tall, commanding black man that just makes you sit up and go, YEAH!!! If you have to ask why, well then not only have you missed the point of this whole musical exercise, but you haven’t been paying attention to the color conscious casting struggle that has engulfed every theater nationwide.
But back to the cast. The musical may be called Hamilton, but in truth, the star of the show is narrator Aaron Burr, the man who shot and killed Alexander Hamilton out of yearslong professional jealousy. The man who wonders how the hell Hamilton, “a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” manages to leave the Caribbean for New York, become George Washington’s right-hand man, an instrumental creator of the constitution and eventually Secretary of the Treasury under the country’s first political administration, where he creates our present-day financial systems.
Burr is a role that could have been pure villain. A petty, jealous, vindictive man who kills the hero of our story. But Miranda doesn’t write him that way and Nicholas Christopher certainly doesn’t play him like a one-dimensional character. Frustration, insecurity, pain, loss, regret – Christopher delivers it all and it a bravura performance. We feel his agony even as our dislike of him grows. We understand and even empathize with his feelings of impotence in the face of Hamilton. Do we wish he was a better man? Yes. But Christopher never lets us forget that he is just a man after all, struggling the way we all do. All feeling like we are on the outside of the room where things happen.
There are many moving parts to ensure this touring production is a success, and without question, Christopher’s Burr is a major part of the magic that makes sure this show radiates greatness. But that doesn’t mean everything is peachy. In fact, there is one distinct misfire that utterly erases two key characters from the narrative. Characters that unfortunately are some of the most sassily written and the most fun to watch.
Tasked with playing both Lafayette (a flamboyant French aristocrat and military officer who fought in the American Revolutionary War) and Thomas Jefferson (depicted as a diss-a-minute smart ass), Chris De’Sean Lee fails at both roles for the same reason. He’s certainly got the swagger down, but we fail to understand one word out of his mouth.
As Lafayette, Lee’s French accent is so affected we can’t make out a single syllable. As an accentless Jefferson, he fares better, but his enunciation/projection merely lets us glean every third word or so. And what a shame that is. A tremendously amusing and biting cabinet debate (of course depicted as rap battle) between Jefferson and Hamilton becomes one-sided due to missing most of Jefferson’s barbs. His constitutional negotiations with Hamilton are unintelligible as well. Getting the gist works in some shows, but not in this one when words, rhymes and linguistic play matters so much.
But here’s the thing, while everyone I ran into or overheard commented on this issue at intermission and post-show, no one let it diminish their gushing love of the production. That’s the power of Hamilton. You can take away some of the most satisfying and sly parts of the narrative and still find enough to blow your mind. And then some.
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Still, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me that Houstonians weren’t getting the whole Hamilton experience. It irks me that the show’s now famous, “Immigrants, we get the job done”, battle cry gets buried due to our inability to process one actor’s lines. Really great however, is not the enemy of perfect as they say. Or perhaps Eliza, Angelica and their other sister, Peggy, have it right. “Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now”.
Flaws or not, how lucky are we in Houston to have such a superb Hamilton stop by our doorstep for a while. Seems then, in the end, my fantasy review is perfectly apt:
The musical is stupendous, hallelujah the sound is great. Enjoy the show.
Hamilton continues through May 20 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-315-2525 or visit thehobbycenter.org, broadwayatthehobbycenter.com or ticketmaster.com.