They are not throwing away their shot: (from left) Ruben J. Carbajal is John Laurens, Michael Luwoye is Alexander Hamilton, Jordan Donica is the Marquis de Lafayette and Mathenee Treco is Hercules Mulligan in the San Francisco production of Hamilton at the Orpheum Theatre, part of the SHN season. Below center: The company of Hamilton. Below bottom: Luwoye’s Hamilton is in the eye of a hurricane. Photos by Joan Marcus
When a Broadway musical becomes a phenomenon, like Hamilton, it’s sometimes hard to see the show amid all the fireworks of fan adulation, critical hosannas, glittering awards, staggering dollar signs and the inevitable whines of “Overrated!” The Hamilton fireworks show has been especially colorful with a beloved creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has conquered social media (try to keep up with @Lin_Manuel on Twitter), a PBS documentary, a best-selling book about the musical (not to mention the inspiration for the musical, Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, which has also been further buoyed by the success of the musical), a Grammy-award-winning original cast album that has (as of last month) gone triple platinum and a thematically linked pop album called The Hamilton Mixtape.
Whew. That’s a lot.
If you love Hamilton, and let me say for the record that I love Hamilton, there’s a whole lot to love, including, now, a new company in my hometown. After the Chicago company, which began performances last fall, this new one is what would be considered the national touring company. It’s here until August as part of the SHN season before heading to Los Angeles. The full Broadway creative team is represented here, and at Thursday’s opening-night production, the show shone through the hype with clarity, excitement and emotional heft.
Musicals have turned into landmark events before (Hair, A Chorus Line, Rent), but Hamilton invented a new level of wattage. There are so many reasons for that, but it starts with Miranda, the whirling dervish of an impresario who conceived the show, wrote the words and the music and the libretto and starred in the first production at New York’s Public Theater in 2015 and again when the show moved to Broadway in 2016. Like Jonathan Larsen before him, he cracked open the Broadway musical and reminded us that shows can sound like now and then and succeed on their own terms. With director Thomas Kail he assembled a creative team of artists working at their peak to craft something that, in the end, feels inevitable – of course this exists in this form, how could it not have existed previously?
From the colonial solidity of the wood and brick walls and fluidity of the two turntables on David Korins’ unit set to the sharp and defining shapes of Howell Binkley’s lighting design; from the period detail and high-fashion elegance of Paul Tazewell’s costumes to the nearly nonstop emotional physicality of Andy Blankenbuehler’s expressive choreography – everything comes together here to tell a powerful story about an incredible man – an immigrant, it should be noted – during an incredible time. The beautiful duality of Hamilton is not just in its score with its contemporary sound to tell the story of American revolution and its aftermath. It’s also a story of then that informs who we are now. That comes from the historical details themselves involving the messy birth of our nation, the squabbling, the political maneuvering, the fundamental disagreements and the dream of creating a truly independent nation from the ground up. It also comes from the casting: people of color playing white colonials. This is not an empty effort to make good on promises of diversity. It’s a profound statement about the history of this nation belonging to and serving all its citizens, and it’s a staggering thing to watch these actors working with such verve and integrity playing people who, in the Colonial era, would likely have repressed people of color.
From a theatrical point of view, it’s thrilling to see incredibly talented performers get a chance to prove what stars they are. That’s what happened on Broadway, and it’s sure to happen with every subsequent production. Thanks to Miranda and his team, this exceptionally well-crafted material allows actors, borrowing a song lyric here, to rise up and meet the challenges it presents, both historic and artistic. Actors have to summon the personae of Alexander Hamilton and King George III and Eliza Hamilton and do right by show-stopping songs like “The Schuyler Sisters,” “You’ll Be Back” and “What Did I Miss?”
The San Francisco company bursts with stars, starting with Michael Luwoye in the title role. He has the distinction of being, so far, the only actor to have played Burr and Hamilton in the same day (last fall on Broadway). His Hamilton here is more serious and less vulnerable than Miranda’s was on Broadway. With Miranda it was tricky: with his Hamilton, you were also seeing him. When Hamilton talks about writing like he’s running out of time, he’s also describing the incredibly busy and prolific Miranda. These two big-brained achievers have a lot in common. With Luwoye, it’s easier to see the orphan Hamilton who forcefully and through the combined power of his brain and ambition, made his way from hardship in the West Indies to the peak of American politics, creating our financial system as our first Secretary of the Treasury. Luwoye has a powerful voice and the kind of charisma he can ratchet up as the show progresses and Hamilton’s power and stature grows.
As Hamilton’s friend turned arch-rival Aaron Burr, Joshua Henry pretty much owns the stage. Whether he’s being tender on “Dear Theodosia” (a duet he and Hamilton sing to their infant children) or stopping the show with the dazzling “The Room Where It Happens,” Henry is a first-rate actor and singer, and his realization after that fateful duel with Hamilton, that the world was wide enough for both of them, lands with absolutely heartbreaking resonance.
The leading women in this company are remarkable – every bit as good as their Broadway counterparts. Emmy Raver-Lampman as Angelica, the eldest of the Schuyler Sisters and the one who meets Hamilton first, is ferocious. She’s a powerful woman in a time that did not appreciate powerful women, so she simmers and she channels her intelligence and wisdom as best she can. Solea Pfeiffer as Eliza Schuyler Hamilton has two wonderful musical moments: “Satisfied,” in which she positions herself as Hamilton’s partner in life and “Burn,” where, after his scandalous affair, she attempts to remove herself from his narrative. She has a gorgeous voice, but even better than that, the emotional acuity of her delivery is staggering. As Peggy, the youngest Schuyler Sister, Amber Iman gets the laugh line in the feel-good number “The Schuyler Sisters,” but she comes on strong as Maria Reynolds, the woman who nearly undoes the Hamilton marriage. She and Luwoye sizzle through “Say No to This.”
The entire ensemble dazzles in its beauty and power with stand-out work coming from Rory O’Malley as a very funny King George III, Mathenee Treco as Hercules Mulligan and James Madison and Ruben J. Carbajal as John Laurens and Philip Hamilton.
The abundance of musical riches here is almost too good to be true. In Act II, to have “What’d I Miss” followed a few songs later by “The Room Where It Happens” followed by Washington’s farewell in “One Last Time” followed by the extraordinary “It’s Quiet Uptown” (one of the saddest, most exquisitely constructed cascades of music about grief and forgiveness ever written for musical theater) – it’s more than most musicals can even dare to hope for.
Miranda and his crew have re-set the bar with Hamilton. A new generation will consider this their defining musical, and still more will have to look twice at a portrait of the actual Alexander Hamilton or George Washington or Thomas Jefferson and feel a twinge of disappointment that he’s actually just another dead white guy. There’s a recurring line in Hamilton that is true for a lot of reasons, one of which is the opportunity to appreciate this show in this moment: “Look around, look around. How lucky we are to be alive right now.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton continues through Aug. 5 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $100-$868. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.hamilton.shnsf.com
Hamilton tickets are hard to come by and, when they are, tend to be expensive. Happily, the San Francisco production, like Chicago and New York, offers an online lottery for 44 tickets at $10 each (#Ham4Ham) for every performance. To enter the lottery visit www.luckyseat.com/hamilton.html. Good luck!