If you follow theater — or really, are just tuned in to the culture at large — you’ve certainly at least heard of Hamilton, a hip-hop musical about the Founding Fathers, and especially “the bastard, orphan, son of a whore,” Alexander Hamilton: First secretary of the treasury, firm believer in a strong federal government and obnoxious victim of the world’s most famous fatal duel (the then-vice president of the United States, Aaron Burr, fired the deadly bullet). It won the Tony, the Pulitzer, the Grammy, the Schmendrick Prize (or would have, if such a prize existed). Its star and composer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has become nearly ubiquitous (Moana, Mary Poppins Returns, Curb Your Enthusiasm, his still-moving “love is love is love is love” Tony acceptance speech). You ignore Hamilton — and its undeniable impact on public understanding of modern culture through history — at your peril.
And so the Broadway musical, which has become the hottest ticket in New York since 2014 and has even figured its way into the political debate, finally has reached the colonies, i.e., Texas, with its anticipated national tour (there are actually two; Dallas got the second one). Fair Park Music Hall has nearly three times the seating capacity as its Broadway home. You can see it; you should. It’s good — even great.
But you kinda already knew that. You knew it because it is important. It casts a black man as notorious slaveholder Thomas Jefferson. There are fewer Anglos in the cast than a Wendy Williams studio audience. It tells the starchy history of the battle for independence with a contemporary slant. Some of the songs — “My Shot,” “You’ll Be Back,” “Wait For It,” “The World Was Wide Enough,” the opening title number — are solid songs, well-staged and memorable.
But is it the best show of all time? Well personally, it’s not even my favorite Lin-Manuel Miranda musical.
At least 30 percent of the appeal of Hamilton is the open-heartedness of its conception. It’s transformative. That’s an innovative step, but not exactly a revolutionary one. “The Tiny House of Uncle Thomas” from The King and I, and even “Joseph Smith American Moses” from The Book of Mormon, invest discordant characters with telling the stories of different ethnicities. And making history fun for new audiences goes back at least to the old Classic Comics. Turning debates over centralized banking into rap battles, and incorporating anachronisms to make a point about relevance today, are inventive and even exciting. But Miranda still has a story to tell.
That’s where things can get muddled. I attended press night with a newbie to the show (one who hasn’t listened to the cast recording) and he felt lost about what was going on for long stretches. The script takes plenty of literary licenses to streamline the exposition, and it leads to a density which, combined with the speed of the lyrics and the activity of the staging, can dazzle but distract.
This isn’t altogether a bad thing; Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 was its own ravishing show, though cogency wasn’t its strong suit. I still loved it. And I love Hamilton… but I don’t love-love it.
This product is surprisingly slim on star power; the cast members are all fine, especially Nik Walker as Aaron Burr, Emily Jenda as Eliza and Jon Patrick Walker as King George. But outright charisma? Not quite. Joseph Morales has a better voice than Miranda’s original, but not his squeaky emotionalism. Kyle Scatliffe’s diction as Thomas Jefferson is poor, and he mumbles too many lines. (Even so, this is one of the sexiest casts in a recent musical — the Founding Fathers? More like Founding Brothas.)
But the Othello/Amadeus structure — Burr as the conniving snake in the grass, Hamilton as his own worst enemy — gives dramatic thrust and a chance for some great introspective numbers; I would love to hear Bruno Mars or The Weeknd record “Wait for It” as a pop song. The production will be around until May 5, and come back to Bass Hall in June 2020. It’s definitely an event. But like many events, your enjoyment may vary.
— Arnold Wayne Jones