Chicago Theatre Review
In the Room Where It Happens
Hamilton: An American Musical – Broadway in Chicago
Can there be anyone anywhere who hasn’t at least heard of this Broadway phenomenon? Getting tickets and actually seeing it is another, more challenging story. But, after its sold-out Off Broadway debut a year ago, followed by the unprecedented popularity and critical acclaim the show earned on Broadway (including 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and even the Pulitzer Prize for Drama), the show that’s being called the greatest musical of this generation has finally officially opened in Chicago. But make no mistake: this is not a substandard, nonunion bus-and-truck touring production, but the Windy City’s own sit-down, Equity version of the original show. And it’s every bit as good, if not better in some ways, than the New York production. The PrivateBank Theatre stage bursts with a fresh, vibrant energy sporting an even more spirited and earnest collection of performances. In this sit-down production, every single actor/singer/dancer in the company is a star.
For anyone who’s been living under a rock for the past two years, this is THE musical of this generation. Although essentially an historical drama with songs, this musical broke attendance records by unbelievably selling out every performance since it opened. The show made superstars out of its once unknown original cast, and even the excellent Broadway replacement cast continues to draw SRO audiences. Ticket sales, even with their much-elevated prices, have soared into the stratosphere. The demand to see this musical has made it the most anticipated and talked-about show since “The Book of Mormon.” And, primarily because it employs a musical score that features rap, hip hop, as well as traditional pop ballads, it has achieved the impossible: this show’s generated a theatergoing mania among the most reluctant of audiences—teenagers.
How did a musical about one of our country’s little-known Founding Fathers come to be such a hit? The most anyone remembers about Alexander Hamilton is that he was part of our country’s early government and he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr. Playwright, composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda was on vacation from his hit Broadway musical, “In the Heights.” By chance he picked up Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography in the airport and began reading it. Miranda instantly became inspired by the author’s story of an orphan who immigrated to the Colonies in the 1700’s and worked his way up the ladder of success, all during one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. It sparked the idea for a song, then an entire musical, similar to the hip hop style of his current Broadway hit. Little did Miranda realize at the time what a blockbuster this new show would become.
The musical, which originally also starred Lin-Manuel Miranda in the title role on Broadway, is mostly sung-through with very little spoken dialogue. It features a cast as diverse as the many musical styles Miranda employs. It boasts a rough-hewn, multilevel set by David Korns and costumes by Paul Tazwell, both of which reflect the Federalist Period without becoming slaves to detail. Charles G. LaPointe provides exquisite hair and wigs while perfect sound design is the product of Nevin Steinberg. The warm lighting designed by Howell Binkley beautifully mimics candlelight. Musical supervision and orchestrations are thanks to gifted Alex Lacamoire and Colin Welford and Rick Snyder co-conduct the brilliant 10-piece pit orchestra. Broadway’s Tony winning choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler once more choreographs this new production with all the sharp athletic precision and beauty of the original, while Tony Award accoladed Broadway director Thomas Kail, stages this out-of-town production with the same precision and soulful guidance found at New York’s Richard Rodgers Theatre.
Chicago’s production stars Miguel Cervantes (alternating with Joseph Morales, at select performances) in the role of Alexander Hamilton. The actor was last seen on Broadway in shows like “If/Then” and “American Idiot.” As with many of his cast-mates, this actor’s sincere likability, combined with a talent for wrapping his lips around so many words, especially given the tempo and speed of the rap songs, propels him to star status. Cervantes’ rendition of the title song and “My Shot” are especially terrific. The marvelous Joshua Henry, outstanding in Broadway’s “Scottsboro Boys,” “Violet” and “Shuffle Along,” rocks the stage as Aaron Burr. Among the songs he electrifies are “The Room Where It Happens,” “Your Obedient Servant” and “The World Was Wide Enough.”
The lovely, stylish, wealthy Schuyler sisters are portrayed by Tony Award-winning actress Karen Olivo (“West Side Story”), as Angelica, Samantha Marie Ware (“The Book of Mormon”) as Peggy, and the beautiful “American Idol” finalist, Ari Afsar as Eliza, who would become the future Mrs. Hamilton. Ms. Afsar’s duets “Satisfied” and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” are beautiful, but nothing comes close to her heartfelt solo, “Burn.” Alexander Gemignani, such a standout in Broadway’s revival of “Sweeney Todd,” as well as in the recent “Violet” and “Chicago,” is magnificent and hilarious as King George III. His delightful solos include “You’ll Be Back,” “What Comes Next?” and “I Know Him.” Jonathan Kirkland is powerful as George Washington, Chris De’Sean Lee is very funny and verbose as both Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Jose Ramos is earnest and touching as both John Laurens and Hamilton’s young son, Philip. And Wallace Smith is smooth and sophisticated as James Madison, as well as the aggressive Hercules Mulligan.
Backed by an ensemble of gifted, athletic dancer/singers, Thomas Kail’s Chicago production is clear-cut, crisp, classy and very smart. Most of all it’s entertaining and bridges all generations with its brilliance. It brings the best of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway production to the Windy City and elevates it even higher. There’s not a wrong note, nor a misguided move in this exciting, energized musical. Each performance is a star-making turn and will bring history to life in this very human story of a man with hopes, dreams and lofty ambitions. Audiences who are patient enough to wait for tickets to become available will be supremely rewarded for the time they’ll ultimately spend in the room where it happens.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 27-September 17, 2017 (and may be extended beyond that date) by Broadway in Chicago at the PrivateBank Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, Chicago.
Tickets are available at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, at all Ticketmaster locations, by calling the Chicago Ticket Line at 800-775-2000 or by going to www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.