Encore Michigan

‘Hamilton’ at Wharton Center well worth the wait

Review May 19, 2019 Bridgette Redman

EAST LANSING, Mich.–Hamilton is the show every theater-lover wants to see.

Mid-Michigan residents (and those willing to drive there) are getting that chance for the next couple weeks at The Wharton Center here.

The immediate and pressing question is always, “Is it worth the hype?”

Let’s get that out of the way–Yes, it is. And no, you don’t want to miss it.

The reasons for this are manifold, but there are two that are inescapable: the richness and style of the storytelling and the singular performance of the touring cast.

Some day, theater students will study why Hamilton was such a game-changer. After all, it technically didn’t do anything new. There had been historical musicals before (1776, Miss Saigon, Evita, Les Mis, Ben Franklin in Paris). There had been hip hop musicals before (In the Heights, Holler if Ya Hear Me, Bring It On). There had even been plenty of color-blind casting stretching back for years. The choreography, the costuming, the set—all spectacular, but nothing new.

What makes Hamilton a success was that Lin-Manuel Miranda achieved excellence in every single area unapologetically going where others said made no economic sense to go.

Hamilton is historically accurate. Miranda encapsulates a huge, complex swath of history and interweaves complicated issues with sometimes a single lyric or even half a lyric. A three-year armed conflict, the Whiskey Rebellion, gets a single couplet in a rap battle. A short summary line tells you how Hamilton founded what would be the only country’s only naval force from 1790 to 1798, the Coast Guard.

It doesn’t need more. It invites you to learn more. It packs in more than one would have thought possible for a single musical.

Miranda infuses the show with his love of musical theater and its traditions. Long-time musical goers get plenty of fan service during Hamilton as they hear lyrics and music sequences from The Last Five Years, South Pacific, and Pirates of Penzance.

People who have never been to a musical, but like R&B and pop music, are going to hear echoes of their music, including direct borrows from “The Ten Crack Commandments,” “8 Mile” “Juicy,” and “Party Up.”

How does that work without landing him in court? Because before he did, he asked for permission, got it and when needed, bought the license. Even on the administrative side, Miranda committed to doing everything right with this musical. And that matters once your butt is in the seat.

Lots of people try to claim their show has “something for everyone.” In fact, as someone who writes a lot of previews, it’s the single most common thing I hear directors and actors say. But with Hamilton, there is some punch and credibility to that statement. Rap artists love the music and say it’s the real thing. Such luminaries as Stephen Sondheim praise his lyrics and his rhymes.

More importantly, the show, as Miranda said when it first premiered on Broadway, “looks like how America looks now.” You don’t have to be a middle-class white person from one of the coasts to see someone who looks like you on the stage, someone who talks like you.

Hamilton also doesn’t shy away from being more than what a musical should be. It defies genres. It is a biomusical, historical tale, comedy, political story, family drama, love story, and definitely tragedy.

Before the musical debuted, Alexander Hamilton was perhaps best known as the person who died in a duel with Aaron Burr in which Burr is always cast as the villain; the musical refuses to simplify that event—or any event, even though it frequently encapsulates.

Burr opens the musical for us and throughout the musical we see his journey as much as Hamilton’s. We see their opposing philosophies and why they do the things they do. We admire Hamilton because he rewrites the rules and turns everything he touches into gold. But if we’re honest, we relate to Burr who doesn’t have Hamilton’s moral courage and conviction, who is more cautious, more pragmatic, less idealistic and more insecure. Burr wants to be a survivor.

The characters in this musical are richly layered, travel a well-developed story arc, and are emotionally mature and complex. We can dig into their motivations over and over and still come up with more questions whether the character is Washington, Eliza, Angelica, Lafayette, or even King George, the character most played to comic effect.

So, yes, Hamilton is worth it because the music and the story is stunning in the way it is told and how deeply textured it is, defying all easy stereotypes.

None of that would be enough if the performers couldn’t live up to the demands of the show.

At the head of the touring cast and performing on media night at Wharton Center was Edred Utomi as Hamilton and Josh Tower as Aaron Burr. They can both make you forget that what they are doing is actually hard. From the first note, they are emotionally invested and leave nothing behind. They both have the power to make you laugh and to wring tears from you.

Utomi captures Hamilton’s desperation, the manic approach to which he attacks life, never stopping, always pursuing his legacy.

Meanwhile, Tower is able to peel back the driving desires, fears, and insecurities of Burr. He starts out bemused and grows ever more intense.

There is a beautiful moment midway through the show where these two men are both singing to their infant offspring. Utomi and Tower bring a sweetness and pride to the song, but they also show how very much in common these two men have as they become almost indistinguishable with voices that meld together and fill the Wharton Center.

Hannah Cruz is dazzling as Eliza Hamilton. She literally made the audience gasp at the end. Cruz is especially intriguing because of the way she lets her character flower. When she first comes out, her Eliza is mostly overshadowed by Cherry Torres’ Angelica, who is wittier and more overtly charismatic. As the musical progresses, Cruz’s Eliza grows, becomes stronger, a more important part of the narrative until it is her story to tell.

Paul Oakley Stovall brings dignity and majesty to our country’s first president. His portrayal is intelligent and he owns the stage with his confidence and stunning voice.

Bryson Bruce plays two characters, Lafayette in the first act and Jefferson in the second. While he is no slouch at either, it is the second act where he really shines and lets go with much-needed comic relief and antagonism for the titular hero. He nails his choreography and gives distinction to both his characters.

In a show where tissues are often necessary, Miranda knows how to conduct the emotional beats, and Peter Matthew Smith fulfills his role as comic relief in creating a King George that is a delight to watch whether he is being the abusive, stalkerish boyfriend or the gobsmacked ex.

If there was a flaw in the production, it came in the balancing of the sound. The lyrics to Hamilton are critical and they speed by at lightning rate. Had the vocal microphones been turned up one notch and the pit orchestra’s microphones been turned down one notch, it would have been a more enjoyable experience that required less straining to hear and understand. The one exception was during a particular heart beat sequence where the percussion perfectly overwhelmed all the spoken words.

There are lots of good reasons to see Hamilton while it is at the Wharton Center, and not a single artistic reason to stay away. It deserves its reputation as a game-changer and this cast does justice to every single lyric, choice, and moment.

Week of 11/11/2019

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