By Perry Tannenbaum
Have you seen it? Does anybody have tickets?
Those seem to be the big questions now that the Philip Tour of Hamilton has rolled into Charlotte, and Belk Theater is the room where it happens. Unless you can find somebody who will let go of them, or you’re willing to take on the dates – and the prices – for the few stray tickets Blumenthal Performing Arts can still sell, the hottest Broadway Lights tickets in Queen City history are gone. A daily lottery gives you 40 shots at the prize for each performance. By all means enter it if you’re unwilling to abandon all hope.
So unlike most reviews that I file, this one isn’t for people on the fence. People jumped off that fence on August 1, when available tickets sold out in less than six hours. This review is more for readers who wish to know how good the tour is, and how well it compares with the original in New York and the replacement cast at the Richard Rodgers Theater that carries on now.
It is, of course, axiomatic that Hamilton is great. With book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show has sparked a feeding frenzy at every box office in every theater where it has played – and jaw-dropping prices for its top tier VIP tickets. We’re Americans, after all, fervently devoted to the capitalist system founded by Alexander Hamilton. Financial success and buyer enthusiasm are our current gold standards.
For the record, I was somewhat ambivalent about the New York production – and only scantly prepared. The experience was unparalleled, sporting the most palpable audience energy and involvement I’ve experienced. But the disorientation that this musical can produce is also unparalleled, even if you’ve braced yourself for it.
Face it, rap music is a wildly discordant idiom for the era and the epic biography that Miranda plunges us into, more so for anyone like me who doesn’t ingest hefty helpings of rap daily. If the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s brainiest forefathers, were turned into a ballet, I’m fairly sure that the choreographer’s dominant style wouldn’t be tap dancing. Seems to me like an apt analogy for what Miranda has done – until you factor in that rap is the musical lingua franca of our time.
Miranda’s rap was the primary obstacle I needed to overcome, not just because of its disconnect with Colonial America but because lyrics often flew by unintelligibly, either because the actors were rattling them off at breakneck speed or audience reaction drowned them out. Might I also venture to hint that a few of the accents fell on the wrong syllable? Although Paul Tazewell’s costumes were a welcome concession to colonial days and helped differentiate among the players, David Korins’ scene design was a brash misnomer, staunchly refusing to yield to the old-school convention of scenery.
When Act 2 began, and Miranda leaned toward comedy with the foppish return of Thomas Jefferson from France, I found myself going with the flow more readily. “What’d I Miss?” and “The Room Where It Happens” seemed to burst open a musical palette that – with the exception of King George’s cameo – had sounded fairly monochromatic to me before intermission. And the breathtaking audacity and irreverence of turning two cabinet-level debates, between Secretary of State Jefferson and Treasury Secretary Hamilton, into absurdly anachronistic poetry slams refereed by George Washington?? Irresistible.
Seeing Hamilton in New York was most of the preparation I needed to enjoy it more in Charlotte. Dipping into the Ron Chernow biography that inspired Miranda’s work quickly proved to be a dead end: there is more historical depth and nuance in the book’s first couple of pages than you’ll find in the entire evening of this Broadway megahit. Maybe more empathy as well, though Miranda also rallies on that dimension in Act 2.
Listening to the cast album on your favorite streaming service will be a better use of your time, training your ears to the rhythms and the pace – while priming you for the intensified concentration that Hamilton demands. I listened repeatedly to first four tracks three or four times, getting the feel of the show without previewing too much of the content. But beware: immersion into Miranda-style rap can leave you with withdrawal symptoms. The following evening, listening to the local news, the weatherman seemed to be rapping as I fixated on the rhythm of his forecast instead of the meaning. Days after that, “Alexander Hamilton” and “My Shot,” the first two songs of the show, proved to be tenacious earworms.
What helped me more than better preparation my second go-round was a better cast. Mind you, when I finally snagged press seats for Hamilton in January 2017, replacements for the original cast had already been replaced. Each of these casts had two actors rotating as Alexander, one of whom subbed on Sundays. Reviewing cast #3, I saw none of the above, just a small-print understudy for the sub. On press night in Charlotte, Joseph Morales was an improvement – if you were looking for a Miranda overachiever rather than a Jimmy Smits heartthrob – prancing around impishly as a revolutionary provocateur, running his mouth pugnaciously whether rallying political allies or refuting his foes, and giving us a gentlemanly susceptibility to every woman who tried to seduce him.
By a smaller margin, I also preferred the saturnine authority and incipient menace that Nik Walker infused into Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s perennial rival and our frequent narrator. Walker’s Burr isn’t merely pragmatic and cunning. He’s dangerous. But what decisively separated the Philip Tour from the Broadway third-stringers were the three women who portrayed the Schuyler Sisters. Shora Narayan is Eliza, the sister Alexander will marry; Ta’Rea Campbell is Angelica, the sister that Alex maybe should have married; and Nyla Sostre is Peggy, the discard – resurfacing after intermission as Maria Reynolds, the siren who lures Alex into a shakedown sex scandal.
Up in New York, the trio emphasized their sisterhood to the extent that I began to suspect Miranda was basing his Schuylers on Diana Ross and the Supremes rather than actual historical figures, mere ploys to simulate diversity. I couldn’t wait to see them vanish. Here the contrast between the innocent, trusting Eliza, and the wiser, more sophisticated Angelica is wonderfully projected in Narayan’s silken plaintive voice juxtaposed with Campbell’s R&B power. Their songs came alive, deepening their individuality; the pain that Alex inflicted upon Eliza became poignant, devastating; and her quiet forgiveness of her wayward husband was an emotional peak.
Both of the remaining Founding Fathers are quite good, but it’s Kyle Scatliffe as Jefferson who threatens to steal the show from the leads each time he parleys his massive voice and his hulking frame with his bodacious dancing skills. His flair for comedy is a perfect match for his flamboyant purple threads. Less imposing is Marcus Choi, who makes George Washington a stern, sometimes avuncular father figure for Alexander. If you had seen Nicholas Christopher* as the father of our country – monumental Mount Rushmore stuff, really – you’d understand why Choi’s Washington was a bit of a letdown.
As for the lone white man among major players in this diverse cast, I couldn’t see the slightest difference between Jon Patrick Walker as King George here in Charlotte and Rory O’Malley as the Broadway monarch, though I suppose Walker is hamming it up a little more for the larger hall. In a sea of anachronisms and stylistic disconnects – Jefferson actually executes a mic drop after one of his raps! – there’s a sensible British tang to King’s “You’ll Be Back” and subsequent variants. Close your eyes and you might hear echoes of Lennon-McCartney ditties during the Beatles’ vintage Sgt. Pepper years. It’s an island of blissful, silly relaxation in a theatre evening of riveting energy and intensity.
*Christopher, you’ll be glad to know, hasn’t vanished from the scene. He has been reincarnated on the other Hamilton tour, the Angelica Tour, as Aaron Burr.