Review: ‘Hamilton’ continues to educate and entertain with its take on messy history
May 3, 2022 Updated Fri., May 6, 2022 at 8:53 a.m.
As I headed into the First Interstate Center for the Arts on Wednesday to see the national tour of “Hamilton” running through May 22, I had two questions in mind.
First was how the show would hold up after repeated viewings. I’d seen it in Seattle in 2018 and watched the film version of the original Broadway production on Disney+ a couple of times. Would I still get caught up in a story I was already very familiar with?
Second was how they tried to solve the Sally Hemings problem at the top of Act II. Hemings was an enslaved woman owned by Thomas Jefferson who bore him many children. Critics had chafed that her depiction, with Jefferson’s line, “Sally, be a lamb, darlin’, won’tcha open it?” from “What Did I Miss” was playful and flirtatious, a winking nod to her existence in Jefferson’s life.
Didn’t Sally, some wondered, deserve better than that? Especially in a show that speaks often about the evils of slavery? Producers had taken the pandemic break as an opportunity to make some adjustments to the scene, and I was curious to see how it worked.
I should not have worried about question one. It was great to be able to watch “Hamilton” again in person, to revel in the sights and sounds, to pick up a few nuances and to realize what works and what doesn’t. It is an energetic and powerful show that is very entertaining, but it’s not perfect, and its imperfections are a part of its charm.
As for question two? Let me get to that in a bit.
In the meantime, the 2015 musical, one of the few Broadway shows in recent years to explode into the broader popular culture, remains a thought-provoking, genre-busting, amusing and entertaining work of theater. Created by Lin-Manuel Miranda and directed by Thomas Kail, “Hamilton” tells the story of the founding of America through the tale of Alexander Hamilton, the poor immigrant from the Caribbean who worked his way up to become the nation’s first treasury secretary.
The villain of the piece is Aaron Burr, the U.S. vice president who killed Hamilton in a duel. At Hamilton’s side is his wife, Eliza, and her sister Angelica, his posse of friends and his mentor, George Washington. It’s like an episode of “Schoolhouse Rock” on steroids.
The show broke barriers on a couple different levels – first by blending hip-hop and rap styles into a Broadway musical, the second by casting people of color to portray real-life historical figures who were white. It won multiple Tony Awards, spawned the top-selling cast recording of all time and remains so popular that there are currently three tours playing in the U.S., all while the Broadway show is still going strong.
The tour that’s in Spokane features a talented cast who put their own marks on songs that have become iconic: “My Shot,” “Wait for It,” “Yorktown” and “Burn” were four highlights from Wednesday night. As Hamilton, Julius Thomas III pulls off admirably the weight of responsibility, bringing high energy to the raucous number “My Shot” and “Yorktown” from Act I, while exhibiting lovely vocal form in Act II’s more emotional numbers, “Say No to This,” “Hurricane” and “It’s Quiet Uptown.”
As Burr, Donald Webber Jr., does the heaviest lifting. Burr is very much a counterpart to Hamilton. He is the story’s narrator, and it is his jealousy and rage that help propel the second act toward its inevitable conclusion. Webber proved more than up to the task, especially during gorgeous renditions of “Wait for It” and “Dear Theodosia,” and the high-spirited “Room Where It Happens.”
The vocal performance of the night belonged to Milika Cherée as Eliza in “Burn.” Cherée, an understudy, makes her audience feel Eliza’s pain upon learning of her husband’s infidelity in a song that is simply heartbreaking.
One thing I wrote in my notes Wednesday night: “I <3 Hercules Mulligan.” It’s true. Brandon Louis Armstrong’s sonorous voice perfectly suited Hamilton’s revolutionary pal in “Alexander Hamilton,” “My Shot” and “Yorktown,” where he gets to drop the show’s most satisfying F-bomb. In Act II, Armstrong pairs nicely with Paris Nix’s Thomas Jefferson on “Washington on Your Side” and “The Election of 1880.”
Nix is hilarious as Lafayette in Act I and as Jefferson in Act II, and Andy Tofa shines as John Laurens and Philip Hamilton. And as King George III, Rick Negron is great fun.
“Hamilton” is by its nature a political show. It’s about forming governments and the fractures that can result. It is political in its casting, and it’s political in its view of immigrant roles in American society. Yet in many ways, the most outwardly political aspects of the show, such as the Cabinet meeting scene recast as a rap battle, or the saga of the election of 1800, feel like distractions from the core human stories.
The best moments of “Hamilton” are human: Burr singing a love story to his daughter and later seething in jealous rage, Eliza crumbling in despair, Angelica pining for the man she chose not to have, Hamilton doing all he can to improve his station in life, whether in wartime or an advantageous marriage or a lofty career. The political stuff is fun – who doesn’t love to see a good rap battle? – but feels like it comes at the expense of what could be a deeper, more emotionally true show.
That said, the show continues to take on new weight as current events unfold. “Hamilton” is very much a product of the Obama years, a time when having a Black actor play George Washington seemed less outrageous because a Black man was in the White House. The Act II number “One Last Time,” about the orderly transition of power after Washington decides to not seek re-election, certainly takes on poignancy in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Now back to Sally. This new staging is certainly less flippant. The ensemble member who plays Sally hands Jefferson the letter, turns her back on him and dances off stage. I can appreciate what the production team was trying to do here, having her appear to rebuff him, but I’m not sure it does enough.
If you’re going make a point of mentioning Sally at all, find a way to make the true nature of that inherently unequal relationship more apparent. Or don’t mention her at all. This is especially jarring because the show holds up John Laurens, who dreamed of forming a battalion of emancipated Black soldiers to fight for the American cause, as a hero.
Is this a fatal flaw for “Hamilton”? Not for me. I can appreciate a show that attempts to make history entertaining and alive for modern audiences, even if it’s a little messy. Because history is messy. It’s in learning from its messiness and contradictions that we can become better citizens. In an era when learning history is under attack, the history lessons offered by “Hamilton,” no matter how flawed, are necessary.
Reviewed Wednesday, May 4, at First Interstate Center for the Arts.
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