I asked myself two questions as I collected my thoughts on “Hamilton,” the commercial mega-hit that finally made its way to Kansas City this week: First, how would the production strike me if by some miracle I was oblivious to the award-winning show’s river of hype? Second, how would I enjoy this historical epic set to music if I had paid, say, $300 for a seat?
The answer to the first question: “Hamilton” is an extraordinary act of artistic creation, one that breaks multiple rules of what a musical can and should be. Like creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway show, “In the Heights,” this one offers a unique, textured soundscape incorporating asymmetrical hip-hop rhyme schemes and an unorthodox narrative approach. The music is mesmerizing.
As to the second question, who knows? The show’s occasional missteps would have loomed larger because, as magnificent as it is, “Hamilton” is not perfect — and it’s a very pricey night out. But a colony of fellow critics and I watched the show Wednesday night from the rear-left orchestra. The seats weren’t ideal — I should have brought binoculars — but I’m happy to report that from where I sat the sound was crystal clear. That came as a pleasant surprise in light of the Music Hall’s reputation for lousy acoustics.
Miranda found inspiration for a musical like no other in historian Ron Chernow’s 800-page biography of founding father Alexander Hamilton, the principal author of the Federalist Papers (which argued for ratification of the Constitution) and architect of the American financial system after defeating Britain in the Revolutionary War. Hamilton served on George Washington’s staff during the war and led troops at the battle of Yorktown. As the first Treasury Secretary, he addressed the new country’s debt and established a tax system.
Clearly, a skilled bureaucrat and political in-fighter with a head for numbers might not, at first glance, seem a likely subject for a Broadway musical — despite two melodramatically charged events on his resume. His extra-marital affair became the first sex scandal in American history and he ultimately died in a duel with political rival Aaron Burr. But Miranda saw in Hamilton’s life a rich story of an immigrant who rose to power and who, with other flawed founders, created a republic that has survived external and internal threats for more than 200 years. On that score, the show seems remarkably relevant to the here and now.
Miranda’s skilled condensation of Hamilton’s story is a singular feat of stage writing, even if he sometimes swerves into subplots in a show that could have benefited from some judicious trimming. Hamilton’s relationship with his wife, sister-in-law and son are inherently less interesting than his political conflicts. But these characters do add depth, musically and emotionally.
The show has an enormous cast, including dancers, which moves smoothly on and off stage, thanks in part to director Thomas Kail’s eye for compositions. He relies on an impressive scenic design by David Korins that incorporates ropes and pulleys, staircases leading to an upper level and a central turntable surrounded by an outer rotating ring, allowing for visual dynamism and swift, fluid scene changes.
Joseph Morales, who played the title role in the Chicago production, handles the music and lyrics with slick assuredness in an emotionally honest performance. But even though the show is called “Hamilton,” he isn’t necessarily the most interesting character in the mix. The road show is dominated by Nik Walker, a veteran of the Broadway production, who rivets our attention each time he appears as Burr, a complicated character who is Machiavellian without being villainous. The imposing Walker towers over his fellow actors and has charisma to spare.
Thomas Jefferson, written as a satirical character, doesn’t appear until Act 2 and on Wednesday (the second night of the run) understudy Nick Sanchez won over the audience with a marvelous physical performance imbued with razor-sharp comic timing. Fairly or not, the show depicts Jefferson as a johnny-come-lately who sat out the Revolution in France, now exercising formidable political acumen with an eye on the presidency. (Sanchez also made an impression as Lafayette in Act 1.) King George appears three times in musical performances that amount to show-stopping monologues, in which George expresses anxiety and discomfort about the demands of power and those trouble-making American revolutionaries. Actor Jon Patrick Walker balances the role’s buffoonery with the king’s self-awareness and occasional keen insights.
Understudy Desmond Sean Ellington gives us a stolid, unfussy performance as George Washington. Fergie L. Philippe is memorable as James Madison, as is Daniel Gaymon as Charles Lee.
The story, inevitably, is male-dominated, but Miranda gives breathing room to the female characters — Hamilton’s wife, his sisters-in-law and the woman with whom he had a scandalous affair. Erin Clemons as Eliza Hamilton, understudy Emily Jenda as her sister Angelica Schuyler and Nyla Sostre, who doubles as sister Peggy and Maria Reynolds (Alexander’s elicit lover) all are imbued with stunning voices and deliver charismatic performances.
The choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, often used to give the narrative an assist, is consistently precise and athletic. The costumes by Paul Tazewell are consistency sumptuous, even when they’re meant to look a bit threadbare. Charles G. LaPointe is credited with the memorable wigs and hair design. And the lighting by Howell Binkley bathes the set in a wood-flavored sepia while framing the action in a palette that achieves depth through a balance of moody shadows and simmering highlights.
This production, like the Broadway original, is played by a diverse cast that includes a mix of ethnic types. The intent is clear enough: The United States of America was created at a time when the ancestors of the black and brown people onstage were enslaved, oppressed or marginalized. But the implication is also clear: The multi-ethnic America of today can be reborn, remade and re-imagined by people other than old white men. That possibility was baked into the Constitution by the founders.
“Hamilton” runs through July 7 at the Music Hall. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster.com , by phone at 800-745.3000 and at the Music Hall box office, 301 W 13th St.