Before I start this review, let me first confess: I am a snob and was completely against watching ‘Hamilton.’ My parents raised me on musical theater, and I grew up listening to the songs written by Stephen Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, Maury Yeston, Stephen Schwartz, and Rodgers & Hammerstein. These are just some of the greats and I’ve added a few more later on. And when it comes to music, rap and hip-hop was never really my thing. So, when I heard that ‘Hamilton’ was a rap-sung musical, it hurt my elitist, snobbish sensibilities. And the fact that it’s about American history bothered me even more: “What does that have to do about us?”
I was such an idiot.
I got to see the show at the Theater in Solaire, and while I was preparing to hate it, after the second song, I was grasping the arm of my friend who was sitting beside me and exclaiming how good the show was. And it just started.
To my absolute surprise, and against all my snobbish and elitist expectations, I was blown away by the musicality of the show and how universal the story felt despite it being specific to the history of the United States. ‘Hamilton’ creator Lin-Manuel Miranda conceptualized a show that is steeped in American history (though further reading shows some artistic liberties were taking to tell a more cohesive, more dramatic story) but told in a way that spoke about issues now and applicable to any experience.
More than anything, seated at the back of the orchestra, my failing eyesight meant that I couldn’t see any of the actor’s faces. Instead, I relied on their movements, costume, and their singing and I have to say that it was completely comprehensible to me what was going on that stage. The play is completely sung/rapped through with very little (if any) dialogue to carry the story, so you really have to listen. But it has a beat and a rhythm that is so infused with modern sensibilities that it is fairly easy to follow, and the performances were so clear and enunciated so well that you heard everything.
And what a cast they have for this show. Each one was singing better than the other, infusing every note and syllable with emotion and energy. On one hand, you have Jason Arrow as Alexander Hamilton, rallying everyone’s attention in every scene but then you have the gorgeous voice of DeAundre’ Woods as Aaron Burr that steals each scene after (his ‘Wait for It’ is something to marvel). David Park’s dual role of Marquis de Lafayette in Act One and Thomas Jefferson in Act Two are so different in tone, energy, and even accent, I thought it was a different actor until it was pointed out by my friend. But the real scene stealers were Brent Hill as King George and Darnell Abrahams as George Washington. Abrahams’ ‘One Last Time’ was so powerful it almost turned into some gospel moment with Abrahams’ incredible voice that I almost lost myself.
But as the show unfolded, it was the story of the Schuyler sisters that really sold the whole show for me. The one-two punch of Akina Edmonds and Rachel Ann Go as Angelica Schuyler and Eliza Schuyler-Hamilton are the true stars of this show. While Hamilton and Burr have one moment of warmth in the song ‘Dear Theodosia,’ the Schuyler sisters’ every song is filled with their longing and passion. The boys get to talk about politics and ambitions, but the women have to sing about their desires as something that is only secondary in this day and age of men. Edmonds and Go fuel that energy and when Rachel Ann Go sings her powerhouse number ‘Burn,’ she literally burns the house down.
The show is about Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of America and his participation in the building of the country as it declares its independence from Britain but it is also about the original American dream – about how immigrants fled to the United States to start anew and to build themselves up from nothing but their hardwork and their dreams. Hamilton wore his politics on his sleeves, and he was brash and arrogant but he had a mission and he pushed through and achieved great things despite all the barriers that came his way, many of which were people who were jealous of his determination to see things through. On the road to his legacy, he fell in love with his wife but put her and his family second to the nation that he was building. His undoing was his own human frailty, but the musical makes a case that his personal failings to his family should not overshadow the work he had accomplished in putting his country together.
The musical works in broad strokes. Intentions are stated through a song, a love story can be played out in a fantastic number, and the war is fought and won just within Act One. There’s rarely any time for nuance or intimacy. The play hits every important story point in a big number that is just so fitting for a story of this magnitude, and it works so well.
Even the use of rap and hip-hop helps bridge the past with present day issues – the fact that Hamilton is “an immigrant” (newly arrived into the US from a small Caribbean island rather than being born in the USA) yet worked his way to the top; the class divide; the dirty business of politics; the messiness of love and marriage; and most importantly, taking a stand in political issues and not just waiting things out – the modern sensibilities of the play grounds the musical so that while everything is set and told within the context of American History, as Lin-Manuel Miranda wanted it to feel, it talks about the world we know now.
By choosing a multiracial cast to perform the parts of these white men and women from history opens up that history to anyone who believes in the same ideals. We might not be Americans, but the struggle between political lines are similar and the most important take away here is to take a stand, stop sitting on the fences, and as the song goes: “to take your shot.”
GMG Productions’ ‘Hamilton’ was an absolute thrill for me. It changed this musical snob’s mind. Not only did my perspective on the show changed (how could I have been so resistant, I loved the music of ‘Moana’ and ‘Encanto,’ why would I think any differently?) but I have been introduced to a show that is fully engaging, wonderfully staged, and very well performed. This is such a terrific cast that I didn’t go and listen to the original cast recording right away (despite how badly I wanted to revisit the songs). I knew for a fact that the Philippine touring cast was going to be better than the original cast recording.
I finally listened to it today to write this review and I was right. The cast performing in Solaire right now is way better than what’s on music streaming sites.
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Homestream images courtesy of Zeus Martinez and GMG Productions.