Alexander the Great

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday March 28, 2017
Share this Post:
Michael Luwoye, second from left, plays the title<br>character in <i>Hamilton,</i> a musical that<br>lives up to the frenzy of hype that has followed it from New York to San<br>Francisco. Photo: Joan Marcus
Michael Luwoye, second from left, plays the title
character in Hamilton, a musical that
lives up to the frenzy of hype that has followed it from New York to San
Francisco. Photo: Joan Marcus

Hillary has seen Hamilton twice, and while the current president has not seen it, he did take time to dis it in a tweet. The funny thing is, he'd probably enjoy the musical if he could score a ticket. It's the art of the deal, after all, with the swoop of quill pens instead of tiny keyboards used to fire off inflammatory missives, plus it's about the man who literally taught the fledgling United States how to make money.

If we take the president at his word that he's the "least racist person you'll ever meet," the cast of many colors playing the founding fathers wouldn't be an issue. And while the rap-based score might not be his preferred groove, he at least once posited himself as more of a sophisticate than the man who had to endure second-tier country bands at his inaugural parties. But to appreciate the intricate wordplay of the lyrics, you need to pay attention, and that could be a stumbling block for the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Rather than a show you lean back and enjoy, Hamilton is a show that you must lean into to appreciate.

Hamilton has finally officially opened in San Francisco, the debut of a new company that will eventually become the show's touring production after its run concludes at the Orpheum Theatre in August. With the original creative team overseeing the birth of this new company, the results have the intricate precision of the workings of a vintage Swiss timepiece, even within its contemporary design.

Just watch how Thomas Kail's direction and Andy Blankenbueller's choreography are seamlessly meshed into a kaleidoscope of movement, often framing counterpoints to central action that can challenge the eyes to both focus and go wide. Hamilton doesn't so much revolutionize musical theater as build and expand on what has come before. The language of Lin-Manuel Miranda's music and lyrics is built from sounds both familiar and unusual for the Broadway stage, from rap and hip-hop to sweeping ballads and razzle-dazzle showstoppers. The accompanying movements range from Bob Fosse to Beyonce, shifting patterns in a matter of moments, while even incidental movements " three sisters crossing the stage, for example " seldom involve something as mundane as mere walking. Instead, they glide through a crowd in a character-revealing promenade.

One of those sisters becomes the wife of Alexander Hamilton, a devoted husband and father who ruined his reputation by having to admit publically that he had paid blackmail to cover up an adulterous affair. The musical delves into the minds of both Elizabeth and Alexander as the scandal plays out, a dramatic gift to the musical biographers, who otherwise didn't have much onto which to peg Hamilton's personal life in a story mostly focused on the personalities of politics.

For many of us, what we have carried forth from history class was that Hamilton was somehow important in the early days of the country, he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, and he's the guy on the $10 bill. But when Miranda read Ron Chernow's straightforward biography of Hamilton, he saw a civics lesson waiting to be retold in a contemporary vernacular reflecting the gritty deal-making, backstabbing, and jealousies among figures whose images have long been burnished in marble. Plus you get a sex scandal in the midst of the story of an orphaned illegitimate son growing up in poverty in the West Indies before arriving in New York exploding with ambition and a keen mind, becoming George Washington's aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War and the first Secretary of the Treasury, who would create a monetary policy that could financially unite the 13 colonies-turned-states.

Miranda is something of a genius in how he combines emotions and plot elements into ingenious, rhythmic rhymes in rap and hip-hop styles. Many of the musical numbers either spin off from those styles or move into other sounds completely. After Hamilton's adultery becomes public, his wife (movingly played by Solea Pfeiffer) burns his love letters as she sings an aching ballad. Back in England, observing the antics of his colonial subjects with clueless disdain, King George III (the merrily buffoonish Ryan Vasquez) performs a vaudeville song-and-dance routine with a layering of British 1960s pop.

A preening Thomas Jefferson (the merrily supercilious Jordan Donica, who also plays a similarly tres continental Lafayette) doesn't come off too well in this narrative, asking in boogie-woogie fashion if he missed anything of importance during his long sojourn to France. In the most dynamic scene of the show, Aaron Burr complains with increasing passion and bitterness of his exclusion from "The Room Where It Happens" " that is, where the important decisions are being made, in a song that can't easily be categorized as rap, pop, or showtune, but is splendidly rendered by Joshua Henry in a laser-focus performance as the seldom-satisfied Aaron Burr.

Because Lin-Manuel Miranda became so associated with the title role, his absence is the hardest to get past. Michael Luwoye doesn't project a distinctive charisma in the earlier scenes as Hamilton, where he can momentarily get lost in the crowds, but it's a performance that grows in stature as the musical proceeds.

Putting it all together, Hamilton is an audacious undertaking that has come together with something tantalizingly close to perfection. There is "importance" stamped on the material, but that is no hindrance to the sheer delight of a musical that, like Hamilton himself, knows what it wants and sets out to grab it.

 

Hamilton will run through Aug. 5 at the Orpheum Theatre. Tickets are still available in scattered locations at various performances during the run. Or enter the painless online lottery for a daily chance to win a pair of $10 tickets. All ticket info at shnsf.com.