Through Sept. 16
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
At long last, “Hamilton” has come to Washington.
The national tour of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pop phenom, hip-hop-heavy musical chronicling the extraordinary life of founding father Alexander Hamilton has moored at the Kennedy Center Opera House though mid-September. After opening on Broadway in summer, 2015, it went on to win 11 Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize.
Miranda’s sweeping, breathing, sung- (and rapped-) through score wastes no time in asking, “How 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 hero and scholar?” The answer, not surprisingly, is “by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter.”
The show’s testosterone-charged early numbers like “My Shot” introduces the young guns/architects of the American experiment. At the center is Alexander Hamilton (Austin Scott), surrounded by the Marquis de Lafayette (Bryson Bruce), Hercules Mulligan (Chaundre Hall-Broomfield), Aaron Burr (Nicholas Christopher) and Hamilton’s favorite John Laurens (Rubén J. Carbajal) — all played by actors of color. Hamilton, an up-and-comer who arrived in New York at 19, boasts to his new drinking buddies, “Hey yo, I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry and I’m not throwing away my shot. It’s time to take a shot!”
Rather quickly, Hamilton rises to become aide de camp to Gen. George Washington (Carvens Lissaint) during the Revolutionary War, first secretary of the treasury, architect of America’s banking system, founder of the Federalist Party and more. He gets a career boost from the socially prominent and rich Schuyler sisters, Eliza (Julia K. Harriman) his long-suffering wife, and older sister Angelica (Sabrina Sloan), who also finds him irresistible. Seems there’s nothing Hamilton can’t do and he does it all with a sense of urgency.
First act closer “Nonstop” asks, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” The second act is rife with political maneuvering, a sex scandal, marriage problems, tragedy and more.
The hype surrounding “Hamilton” is warranted. Director Thomas Kail’s incredibly dynamic staging is perfection. The actors are carefully cast, brilliantly putting America’s racial history in the spotlight. As Hamilton, handsome actor Austin Scott brings energy, timing and a gorgeous voice to the production. Andy Blankenbuehler’s innovative and muscular choreography performed by a large, terrific ensemble is an integral part of the narrative. Paul Tazewell’s great looking period costumes including beautifully made coats and flattering breeches; and the Schuyler sisters’ lovely pastel gowns are charming. It’s a pleasingly cohesive and exciting production to say the least.
But it’s mostly about the music. Miranda’s rap establishes George Washington as heroic. Lafayette is witty and Hamilton wonderfully brash. Thomas Jefferson is comically written. Though there’s a lot of hip-hop, R&B and rap, the score also includes some more traditional Broadway tunes. There’s scorned wife Eliza’s ballad “Burn” powerfully performed by Harriman. And King George (Peter Matthew Smith) makes a delightfully memorable appearance signing “You’ll Be Back,” a ‘60s British pop-sounding message to the colonies.
The Kennedy Center’s Opera House’s acoustics are fine and the orchestra is excellent. Still, some of the rapidly sung raps take a minute to settle into, so getting familiar with the score before seeing the show, would be time well spent.
“Hamilton” is by far the most anticipated Kennedy Center event since 1981 when Elizabeth Taylor stepped onstage as scheming Regina Giddens in “The Little Foxes.” But the three-year wait for “Hamilton”, and the expense and hassle involved in securing tickets, all fade away once seated in the theater. It’s worth it.
The finale is titled “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Though Miranda was inspired by the 2004 biography “Alexander Hamilton” by historian Ron Chernow, it’s his musical version, a remarkable blend of present and past, told with candor and love, that will be most remembered.