Review: ‘Hamilton’ brings the revolution to L.A.
Anyone in the vicinity of the Pantages Theatre on Wednesday afternoon got the message, big time: the “Hamilton” juggernaut has hit Southern California.
Hours before the monster-hit musical’s official local debut, its creator and Broadway leading man, Lin-Manuel Miranda, sang for a huge, excited crowd in front of the venue in what’s called #Ham4Ham, a ticket lottery and impromptu performance that’s been a regular feature of the show. The line-up for the event reportedly stretched past the Capitol Records building, and the LAPD briefly closed down Hollywood Boulevard. Ticket sales for the musical’s L.A. run have already surpassed the totals it rang up in San Francisco, where it was also wildly popular.
Of course, “Hamilton’s” fame has been building for years: a viral 2009 YouTube video of Miranda performing the title song at the White House; Michelle Obama’s declaration that the show is “the best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life,” 11 Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy; its well-documented interaction with Trump-era politics.
For those who have followed but never seen “Hamilton,” the yoke of hype has gotten extremely heavy. How could it meet such lofty expectations?
Wednesday’s show pulverized any doubts in anyone in the audience might have had about “Hamilton’s” unique strengths. But what’s really remarkable about this show is that it succeeds not by satisfying musical theater’s age-old conventions, but by defying many of them.
It’s dense – by far the wordiest major Broadway musical ever. It’s about one of our nation’s lesser founding fathers, a man who died fairly young and was reviled by many of his colleagues. It’s full of minutiae about Congressional fights and the birth of the banking system. The staging is spartan and devoid of any effects beyond a small turntable.
But Miranda has a multitude of strengths, which this project serves well. He loves stories about underdogs, and Hamilton, a bastard orphan immigrant from the Caribbean with a chip on his shoulder and a lively brain in his head, is the perfect Miranda character.
Miranda also capitalizes on the fascinating ironies and twists of fate that characterize Hamilton’s life and career. His devotion to duty ultimately undermines him when work pressure leads to a disastrous affair and blackmail scheme. His son suffers the same fate as he eventually does, dying in a senseless duel. The tragedy, though, brings Hamilton back together with his grieving wife, who had banished him after discovering his infidelity. He sides with his political enemy, Thomas Jefferson, in order to keep one of his original mentors, Aaron Burr, from winning the presidency.
Miranda explores these episodes artfully, employing them to bring out the story’s themes of class conflict, rivalry, prejudice and the growing divide between North and South.
Miranda’s other dazzling strength is his songwriting. He’s a master of contemporary forms, from rap to blues, pop to torchy ballads. And his curiosity and fluid ability take him far and wide. Throughout the show, you’ll hear a dizzying array of musical homages that reach back a full century. Among the oldies, you’ll hear references to “South Pacific” and “Pirates of Penzance.” But Miranda is most attuned to hip-hop and pop music of the past 30 years or so. Astute listeners will spot a snippet of “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five and brief shout-outs to Rihanna, Drake, Mobb Deep, Eminem, DMX and Biggie. Make no mistake: Miranda is a first-rate hip-hop artist.
The capable touring cast includes several veterans of the Broadway production, notably Rory O’Malley as a puckishly evil King George. The women are uniformly strong: Emmy Raver-Lampman brings a powerhouse voice and steely strength to Angelica, the older sister of Hamilton’s wife, Eliza (she secretly holds a candle for him). Solea Pfeiffer’s Eliza expertly crafts a tricky character arc, from youthful naivete through mid-marriage disillusion to a quiet acceptance of her husband, despite his faults. Amber Iman combines desperation and sexiness nicely as the femme fatale, Maria, and her sultry voice is a knockout.
Among the men, Joshua Henry as Aaron Burr steals more than one scene – his rendition of “The Room Where It Happens” is this production’s most electric number. Isaiah Johnson brings grit and gravitas to George Washington, and Jordan Donica’s Thomas Jefferson is a delightfully self-absorbed dandy.
As Hamilton, Michael Luwoye is less impressive than he should be. His singing voice isn’t memorable, though he’s a capable rapper, and his choices for the role tend toward understatement – a far cry from Miranda’s performance, at least as it exists on the cast recording.
But this monster can absorb a few imperfections. You need to see “Hamilton” because, like its characters, it’s revolutionary – a musical that redefines the form, gives you a painless but detailed history lesson, and resonates with our troubled times in uncanny ways.
It’s a show that your grandchildren will be watching 50 years from now.
When: Through Dec. 30. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 7 p.m. Sundays.
Where: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles
Information: 800-982-2787, hollywoodpantages.com
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