The Room Where It Happens

The Argus’ Copy Editor reviews the Tony award winning musical, Hamilton
By Ryley Fingler, Copy Editor

hamilton-ryley-finglerHow does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be…a Tony-winning musical? And how does that musical grow into a cultural phenomenon that dazzles not only its country of origin, but manages to infiltrate mainstream media worldwide? That’s right, folks: the Hamilton craze has gone global.

If you’re one of the few people who haven’t yet heard of Hamilton: An American Musical, fear not: here’s an overview. The musical, created by Lin-Manuel Miranda, follows the life of Alexander Hamilton, founding father of the United States and the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury. Praised as “America then, told by America now,” it features a variety of musical genres ranging from rap and R&B to jazz and classic Broadway sounds. It also features what has been dubbed “colour-blind casting” – nearly the entire cast is made up of minority actors, drawing attention to the many cultures and races that make up the United States.

Admittedly, the concept of this hip-hop musical about political leaders is a hard sell, and its overwhelming success couldn’t have been predicted. In 2009, Lin-Manuel Miranda performed a work-in-progress version of the song “Alexander Hamilton” at a poetry jam hosted by the Obamas at the White House. Referring to Hamilton as somebody who “embodies hip-hop,” Miranda was met with disbelief and laughter. Nobody would have expected the biography of an 18th-century politician to translate into a contemporary sound that has earned itself a record-breaking 16 Tony nominations and 11 wins, but the show’s success speaks for itself.

Originating in New York City at the Off-Broadway Public Theatre, Hamilton celebrated unprecedented ticket sales before moving to its current home at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Now, it’s found a second city to call home in Chicago at the PrivateBank Theatre, which is where I was lucky enough to count myself among the 1800 people in the audience on a rainy day in mid-October.

The Chicago production is, in a word, spectacular. Personally, as an avid listener of the Broadway cast recording, I was concerned that the new voices wouldn’t quite live up to the magic that I was used to. I’m happy to report that I couldn’t have been more wrong. The cast works perfectly together, bringing fresh interpretations to the already well-loved music.

Miguel Cervantes brings a softer, slightly more acoustic sound to the character of Alexander Hamilton while refusing to sacrifice any of the energy introduced by Miranda, and Chris Lee as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson is wonderfully suave, adding slick dance moves and a delightful taste of arrogance to the character. Joshua Henry plays the role of Aaron Burr with such dedication and finesse it was impossible to witness his solos without getting chills; his portrayal of Burr’s barely-concealed rage near the end of the play becomes nearly tangible as the tension reaches a boiling point. Karen Olivo, a Broadway veteran who also starred in Miranda’s first musical, In the Heights, mesmerizes as Angelica Schuyler, the intelligent and fiercely loyal sister of Hamilton’s wife, Eliza (played, also flawlessly, by Ari Afsar). Alexander Gemignani, who played the role of King George III, was a constant and fabulous source of comic relief, a testament both to the writing itself and to the actor’s interpretation.

A musical of this quality, of course, relies on much more than its main cast to achieve such astounding success. Not only was the ensemble nearly flawless in its choreography and background vocals; the set design, orchestra, lighting, and costumes were just about as close to perfect as one can get. By the time the show was over, it’s safe to say that everyone in the audience had shed at least a couple of tears.

It’s an interesting phenomenon to witness something and feel like your life has changed forever, only to exit the theatre and see that everyone around you is continuing on as usual – going to and from work, seeking shelter from the rain, not knowing that you, only a few minutes ago, witnessed what can only be described as a theatrical miracle.

If you ever find yourself in New York City, Chicago, or any of the other cities that will soon host this work of genius, do yourself a favour and enter the show’s daily lottery. It’s free to enter, and if you win, you get premium seats for the cost of ten dollars. I promise, it’s worth it; so don’t throw away your shot.

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