Before driving downtown to see Hamilton on Wednesday, I worried that the show might feel like The Producers. The latter musical broke box office records when it opened on Broadway in 2001, but it was such a product of its time, and it relied too heavily on its stars, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, without whom the show couldn’t survive. Watch the movie version today, and it feels less like a classic destined for consistent revival and more like a historical artifact.
Yes, Hamilton is still a smash in New York and raking it in around the world, including two simultaneous tours in the U.S. (The one in Minneapolis is hunkering down at the Orpheum Theatre through May 6th, the second time it’s come to town.) But thanks to the show’s album, the best-selling cast album of all time, it’s like The Producers in that it will never shed comparisons to its original stars, especially creator Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton and Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr. It was also born in the twilight of the Obama era, the calm before the storm, which feels so far away it’s hard to remember that version of America.
If you find yourself at the Orpheum in the next four weeks, you’ll quickly realize the Hamilton fever shows no signs of abating. The sold-out audience still broke into applause when Alexander Hamilton (Edred Utomi) introduced himself in his namesake opener, a young girl in front of me danced in her seat throughout the entire first act, and an older woman to my right started singing along — yes, out loud! — to “You’ll Be Back,” King George III’s (Bryson Bruce) first intrusion. More consequently than that boisterous reaction, and despite the musical being emblematic of a certain time, this production felt just as monumental, intelligent, and triumphant as ever. The indomitable force of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece overwhelmed me again, just as it did when I saw it for the first time five years ago.
It took until the second song of the second act for me to come to that conclusion, though. While the show opens with three absolute bangers on the cast album — “Alexander Hamilton,” “Aaron Burr, Sir,” and “My Shot” — the cast in this production felt like they were holding on for dear life through those crowd-pleasers, just trying to make it through Miranda’s rapid-fire wordplay and Andy Blankenbuehler’s busy choreography. By the time Hamilton, Lafayette (David Park), Hercules Mulligan (Tyler Belo), and John Laurens (Jon Viktor Corpuz) sing “They’ll tell the story of tonight” — what should be a charged moment forecasting the Revolutionary War to come — it sounds like they’re ready for bed, not battle.
The first jolt to my system came upon the entrance of Angelica, Eliza, and, yes, even Peggy. The three Schuyler sisters (Stephanie Umoh, Alysha Deslorieux, and Yana Perrault, respectively) provide the vocal backbone of this production. Deslorieux takes “Helpless ” — which is normally merely an amuse bouche for the devastating “Satisfied” which follows — and makes it the unequivocal highlight of Act 1. Similarly, Perrault in her secondary role as Maria Reynolds, who has an affair with Hamilton at the beginning of Act 2, takes a character that is traditionally relegated to a catalyst for the ten-dollar Founding Father and forces the audience to pay attention to her, thanks to Perrault’s gorgeous rendition of “Say No to This.” For all the focus on rap in this show, these three thankfully remind us Miranda’s more traditional Broadway songwriting is just as strong.
The other standout performance for me is Carvens Lissaint as George Washington. The great thing about the casting for Hamilton is that, apart from the focus on centering people of color in this historically white narrative, most of the characters seem to not have specific types. That is, Utomi doesn’t look like Miranda, and Josh Tower (who plays Aaron Burr) doesn’t look like Odom Jr. The Hamilton team seems to be open to casting all shapes and sizes, which is wonderful. The only consistent seems to be Washington, who needs to be commanding (read: tall and imposing). Lissaint is certainly that, especially in the war scenes, but he’s also able to bring out the tenderness behind our first president, too. Then there’s his voice, which he unleashes during “One Last Time” like a dam breaking.
Up until that point, it felt like the audience was anticipating their favorite songs. During King George’s comedic bits, they howled with anticipatory — not necessarily reactionary — laughter. There’s a palpable difference between that and the audience being overcome with unexpected emotion. During Washington’s tear-jerking retirement song, Lissaint achieved the latter, stepping to the lip of the stage and holding all 2,600 audience members in the palm of his hand, until they exploded into applause.
As for the narrator and subject of our story, it’s easy to see why Tower and Utomi were chosen to lead this cast as Burr and Hamilton, respectively. Miranda’s show is almost maniacally fast-paced, dense, and vocally taxing — it’s a miracle there are enough performers up to the task of performing this eight times a week (not to mention twice a day in many cases) — and together both actors capably carry this quasi-historical epic on their backs. (Not that the ensemble here needs to be propped up. This is the hardest-working chorus I’ve seen in a long time, and they earn their rightful place alongside the leads in the curtain call at the end.)
However, we don’t see their full potential until the last quarter of the show. Utomi has a tough time competing with the singular performances of some others in the cast (including Park and Belo, whose duo of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison is particularly delightful), and Belo struggles to give the best song of the musical, “Wait for It,” the power it craves. (Part of the problem there is the sound design in this production at the Orpheum, which lacks finesse in some of the louder, more chaotic songs, as though the actors, orchestra, and accompanying sound effects aren’t in sync.) By the time Hamilton sides with Jefferson over Burr, though, and their friendly competition morphs into a rivalry bound for the dueling grounds, Tower and Utomi bring this story to a devastating conclusion.
Will we see Hamilton in Minneapolis for a third time after what appears to be a mostly sold-out run this time around? Probably. Wouldn’t it be great, though, if this show allowed productions from other theater companies? The scenic design by David Korins in this original staging looks exactly like the ruins at the Mill City Museum. (Seriously, take a second when you get to the theater and look over the set — it’s like a recreation of the exploded flour mill.) The prospect of seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s three-hour tour de force in that open-air venue in the summer is my idea of heaven on earth. For now, though, this tour at the Orpheum is close enough.
910 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403
Playing April 5 – May 6
Learn more here
Download the Hamilton app and enter the lottery for $10 tickets here