Talkin’ ‘bout a revolution.


QPAC, Lyric Theatre

January 7 – April 2

‘The world will never be the same’, the opening number of “Hamilton” notes in its lyrics, with reference to the political heights to be reached beyond the hard early life of ambitious immigrant orphan Alexander Hamilton. It’s quite a meatheatrical moment given the juggernaut success and prestige of the 2015 megahit musical which has (amongst others) won 11 Tonys, a Pulitzer, a Grammy and seven Olivier Awards, and been described by The New York Times as a “theatrical landmark [that has] transformed theatre and the way we think about history.” And when “Hamilton” opens in Brisbane, it is, therefore, to an electric mix of anticipation (of those lucky enough to have experienced seeing the phenomenon on stage before) and expectation (from those in wonder of it the hype is merited). Within even the opening minutes, its seems that everyone’s feelings are validated, when “What’s your name son?” “Alexander Hamilton” sees the crowd go crazy.

The biographical sung-and-rapped-through musical is a cult hit despite its niche subject matter; American composer and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda’s book, music and lyrics bring historian Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton to life to tell the unlikely story of the poor immigrant’s rise to be one of the Founding Fathers of America, George Washington’s right-hand man, and the first Secretary of the Treasury. The almost three-hour long show covers a lot as it takes us through the American Revolution and the political upheaval of the birth of a new nation, while also focusing on Hamilton’s personal life and marriage to Eliza Schuyler.

There are a lot of moving parts that contribute to the overall exactness of the show’s every element, including a symbolic stage revolve which is used to create some memorable metaphoric imagery. And viewing the show again, particularly a different production, allows opportunity to notice and appreciate the intricacies of its many small details such as the impressionistic choreography that surrounds the central action in a blur of movement and dance, including the chorus line accompaniment and track of a bullet’s path in Act One’s foreshadowing illustration of the ‘Ten Dual Commandments’ and the stylised battle movements within the explosive, aesthetically-charged full company ‘Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)’ number in which Hamilton meets up with Lafayette (Victory Ndukwe) determined not to throw away his shot to take down the British.

The polished cast is engaging throughout. Brent Hill is all pompous regalia as King George, also bringing a bit of vengeance to the sing-songy message from the king, ‘You’ll Be Back’. His comic timing is perfect also in ‘What Comes Next’, soon after the victory at Yorktown, when he asks the rebels how they will succeed in governing on their own. Ndukwe is both an energetic Marquis de Lafayette and a flamboyant Thomas Jefferson, just returned from France at the start of Act Two to take up his newfound position as Secretary of State. And he makes Lafayette’s high-energy ‘Guns and Ships’ fast-paced rap (the fastest song in the fastest-paced musical theatre production of all time) look barely like a mouthful at all.  

Akina Edmonds’ Angelica Schuyler (sister-in-law to Hamilton) is feistily feminist both in her introductory, innocent ‘The Schuyler Sisters’ and later ‘Satisfied’ in which she both revels her character’s unrequited feelings of love for the titular hero (in heart-tugging lyrics which weave in and out of Angelica’s toast at her sister’s wedding) and establishes herself as his intellectual equal in lightning-fast rap. As antagonist Aaron Burr, Callan Purcell is cheekily flirtatious with Angelica, but, in contrast to Hamilton, cautious and then resentful in his desire to be in ‘The Room Where It Happens’. Not only are his vocals superb in the relatable ‘Wait For It’, but, in the most typically-musical number of the show, ‘The Room Where It Happens’, when he breaks loose in villainy, he reminders us of why we love to hate Burr.

While Brisbane’s Sami Afuni is an understandable crowd favourite in dual roles as Hercules Mulligan and James Madison, it is Matu Ngaropo who gives the standout performance as the Pride of Mount Venon, George Washington, in need of a right hand man. His masterful gentle vocals send the characters into the final Battle of Yorktown, with a haunting reminder that history has its eyes on them and cements his character as a genuine, respected hero. And his Act Two showstopper ‘One Last Time’, in which Washington humbly announces his decision not to run for re-election as President (with lyrics pulled from the historical text), is a soaring showcase of flawless vocals that are passionate, vulnerable and soaring with raw emotion.

Martha Berhane similarly holds an absolutely silent audience in the palm of her hand as Eliza, even in pause during the show’s final number ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story’ reflection on historical memory. And Jason Arrow makes for a charming lead, commanding the stage as he credible takes Hamilton from the rush of a determined young man of growing renown, working like he’s running out of time, to an older man satesman, reflective in grief and needing to redefine his definition of legacy.

There is much light and shade to the intricate score that serves as the show’s core, from the pumping energy of the epic ‘Non-Stop’ first act finale, which references other songs, themes and moments in overlap, to the easy sway of ‘Helpless’, in which Alexander and Eliza share the rapture of their new love at first sight. And humour is weaved throughout, such as in the rap battle lyrical duel ‘Cabinet Battle #1’ between Jefferson and Hamilton. Under Laura Tipoki’s musical direction, the powerful score’s varied musical elements are well realised in their distinctive characteristics and genres. While elements of R&B, pop and soul are scatted throughout, rap is most dominant, making it a show of many words (approximately 27 000) to shift along its moods.

This is work of art made up of many precise pieces of sophisticated theatrical craftsmanship. David Korins’ scenic design gives us a set for the entire story that is suggestive not just of downtown New York, the greatest city in the world where the revolution is happening, but of a new country being scaffolded into its more finished existence of independence from Great Britain in Act Two. The costumes, designed by Paul Tazewell, help tell the story through symbolism and silhouette changes to reflect the passage of time, with a freshness that comes from decision to make characters appear in period dress from the neck down, but modern in make-up and hairstyles. Howell Blikley’s lighting design features perfectly-timed cues to punctuate actions and Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography is of the smallest of details of unisoned finger clicks as much as sweeping dance moves, and includes stylised movement even of set pieces and props on and off the stage.

In the case of “Hamilton”, the ravers really are right. This much talked-about musical story of the American founding father without credit is an explosive revolutionary ride. While it is tightly written, it is a plot-heavy story and knowing a little about the characters and the history beforehand may serve to assist audience appreciation, especially given its fast pace. Regardless, though, there is no denying its sombre but still hopeful messaging about legacy and agency.  

“Musical theatre isn’t an art form. It’s 14 art forms smashed together,” Lin-Manuel Miranda notes in the musical’s program. If this is the case, then “Hamilton” is the pinnacle of their combination. While it is lengthier than the typical musical, it doesn’t feel that way and before long opening night audience members are leaping to their feet in immediate, sustained standing ovation. Despite this being a specific story of a specific time in American history, there is clearly a resonance with Australian audiences, which make it even more must-see, if you can get yourself a ticket.

Photos c/o – Daniel Boud


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