“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and Scotsman…grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” The opening lines of “Hamilton” (now playing at the Dr. Phillips Center For the Performing Arts in Orlando, Fla.) ask this very evocative question, which the show proceeds to answer through a clever combination of Broadway theater sensibilities and hip-hop inspired lyrics and rhythms.
“Hamilton” tells the rise and fall, rags to riches story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton from his humble beginnings as an orphan in the Caribbean through his involvement in the Revolutionary War to his contributions as an early American political leader and his eventual death. I won’t spoil too much here in this regard, but I’ve found that most people, if they know anything about Hamilton already, only know that he’s on the $10 bill and the details of his infamous death.
“Hamilton” premiered on Broadway to near universal acclaim and this tour stays true to that original award-winning production, and very much lives up to the hype. Having started its life as a hip hop concept album by writer/creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Hamilton” contains almost no spoken dialogue, playing more like a modern day opera with rap. This means that songs flow quickly, one to the other, and the story picks up steam rapidly throughout Act 1 as we follow the events of the Revolutionary War, only slowing down in Act 2 as Alexander becomes mired in the much more difficult job of leading a new country.
This production flies through its nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime moving quickly from song to song at a pace that is, one might say, “non-stop.” The high energy performances and instantly memorable songs keep the audience’s attention the whole way through. The book, songs, and production being what they are, the show truly lives or dies on who tells the story. In “Hamilton,” much of the cast and all of the leads are played by non-white performers. As Miranda says, “America then, as told by America now.” We had a number of stand-ins and understudies taking on major roles the night we attended, but the talent was high and everyone was more than capable. Particular stand-outs include powerhouse Stephanie Umoh as Angelica Schuyler rapping and belting her way through her turning-point song “Satisfied,” and Josh Tower as the narrator Aaron Burr, holding the story together and bringing the house down with the show-stopping “The Room Where it Happened.”
One of the more disappointing parts of the production were the uneven microphone volumes for several performers, including David Park in the dual role of Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. As Lafayette, Park is given some of the most complicated and fastest rap sections of the entire show, and he has to do them with a French accent. This section can already be very difficult to follow and appreciate, and the audio issues did not do him any favors. Hopefully, they can key in on the correct levels for him to utilize in this venue and fix the problem for the rest of the run. Signs in the lobby indicated that an app was offered to allow patrons to view captions on their phones during the performance. While clearly intended for those who are hard of hearing, I could see people of all different abilities taking advantage of this feature for this production.
As laid out in the program itself, the lyrics and song stylings of “Hamilton” contain references to a number of classic hip hop artists such as The Notorious BIG, Mobb Deep, and Grand Master Flash, as well as Broadway hits like “The Pirates of Penzance,” “South Pacific,” and “The Last Five Years.” Borrowing from (and giving credit to) these inspirations firmly grounds the show in both its hip hop and Broadway roots, allowing those with greater knowledge of those genres and influences the chance to recognize lyrics and rhythms that are meaningful to them. It’s in this way that “Hamilton” achieves perhaps its most important feat, creating something that is instantly recognizable and digestible by the patrons of the art form that keep it going today, as well as opening up the art to a whole new group of people that might not have otherwise given theater a chance.
Some people see “Hamilton” and ask, “Who is this for?” I believe the show and production itself answer that question boldly and directly. “Hamilton” is for those who love the spectacle of large, flashy musicals. “Hamilton” is for anyone who’s ever wondered if they might see someone who looks like them in a leading role. “Hamilton” is for those looking to be thoroughly entertained for a couple of hours. In short, “Hamilton” is for you, whoever you may be.
“Hamilton” runs now through Nov 20, 2022 at the Dr. Phillips Center with more tour stops to follow. For tickets check out drphillipscenter.org and for more information on “Hamilton” or to find out when the tour will be in a city near you, visit hamiltonmusical.com.