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You Wanna’ Be in the Room Where It Happens
Words by Colleen Foster
Image by Joan Marcus
All hell broke loose one morning late February when over 70,000 D.C. theatergoers tried to get into heaven—meaning, the online box office of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Three years after opening on Broadway, Hamilton: An American Musical was finally coming to the nation’s capital. Starting in June, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mega-hit creation about the “ten-dollar Founding Father,” from his birth in the Caribbean to his final infamous duel, would call the city home.
Where else better for a show with a jazzy, Dixieland rendition of the Compromise of 1790, which moved the capital city to the Potomac, to reside for three months?
I was lucky enough for my Hamilton experience on July 5 at the Kennedy Center to be my second. In May 2016, I made a pilgrimage to New York City with family, courtesy of a big brother with mad ticket-hunting skills (our “ticket sherpa,” we call him). We saw a performance by a mostly-original cast, including Miranda himself in the title role.
His entrance during the opening number received the thunderous reception of a demigod and rockstar. As that evening at the Richard Rodgers Theatre continued, it was readily apparent that the show had earned the sheen on every one of those eleven Tony Awards. The air was palpable with the electricity of people who know they’re performing and beholding the cultural zeitgeist.
And that cannot be recreated. Just as, for example, I can never experience Rent the same way Broadway patrons did at the Nederlander Theatre in 1996 when it was so raw, edgy, and heartbroken following creator Jonathan Larson’s sudden death.
But you know what? That’s okay. Stating the inimitable nature of a show’s original cast isn’t a pompous hipster or elitist viewpoint because here’s the bottom line: theater is not meant to be replicated in whole. Ever. Not from night to night, let alone company to company. It is a living, breathing experience with nuances.
Hamilton here and now is distinctive from Hamilton there and then, as it should be—in some ways, you could even argue that amidst the terrifying, divisive political climate of summer 2018, parts of its material are even more relevant now than two years ago. Think about it.
The truth is that the creative meat, the core materials of the show’s music, lyrics, and staging, are so rich that it is impossible to have a bad version as long as the cast is solid. So feel no disappointment about not making it to Broadway, this “Angelica Tour”—the other traipsing the country is “Philip”—is deserving of all five-star reviews, toasts and standing ovations.
Austin Scott plays the title role here with perfect urgency, the aggressive survival instinct that always loomed over Alexander’s shoulder as served during the Revolutionary War, feverishly authored 51 Federalist Papers, and became the first Secretary of the Treasury. While it does not make his Alexander necessarily “better,” his vocal chops are undeniably more well-trained than Miranda’s and for the most part, his young age—the man’s only in his mid-twenties—does not get in the way of believability as Alexander ages far past his “young, scrappy, and hungry” nineteen-year-old self.
Then there’s the elephant in the room, that whole deadly duel thing: what about Aaron Burr? Truthfully, any audience member walking in with Aaron Burr labeled as the “antagonist” should have that obliterated by the end, as the show aims to give him depth and humanity beyond being “the damn fool that shot him.” And while Nicholas Christopher plays the role here sufficiently, he doesn’t seem to me to undergo the same tension-building evolution that the originator of the role, Leslie Odom, Jr., did. Christopher’s Burr comes off as almost glib and flippant at times, with an over-enunciation that can be distracting and border on comedic. This robs “Wait For It” of some of its poignancy in Act I and “The Room Where It Happens” of some of its near-maniacal envy in Act II. As his friendship with Hamilton begins tentatively, grows into a brittle rivalry and snaps under the pressure, Christopher does not seem to undergo quite as deep a character metamorphosis.
However, the cast on the whole is superbly strong and cohesively shines under the adept direction of Alexandria, Virginia native Thomas Kail. A particular highlight for me was Carvens Lissaint as the restrained, pensive and powerful George Washington; “One Last Time,” the song commemorating his stepping down from the presidency to retire at Mount Vernon, made my soul shiver. My plus-one to the theater particularly liked Peter Matthew Smith as gaudy, prancing King George III, delivering his ‘60s British Invasion aside “You’ll Be Back” and its reprises as comedic relief. And of course the ladies, led by Isa Briones as Eliza Schuyler Hamilton and Julia K. Harriman as her sister Angelica, carried voices and presences that beautifully navigated how to belt R&B and pop strains while wearing reincarnations of 18th-century bodiced dresses, envisioned by costume designer Paul Tazewell.
Again, Hamilton’s face-value materials are so rich and detailed. There are Andy Blankenbuehler’s mesmeric choreography numbers on a rotating stage that’s used so innovatively that not once did it seem like a steal from Les Miz. There are Miranda’s genius lyrical send-ups to everyone from Gilbert & Sullivan to The Notorious B.I.G. There is a deftly-assembled cast that, yes, has stars but is somehow still so interlinked and communicative as an ensemble.
So have no fear about missing out in New York, just do whatever you have to to make it to the Kennedy Center this summer. You can find resold tickets online or enter the ten-dollar-a-ticket raffle. Be like young Alexander, “ready to beg, steal, borrow or barter.” Even if the crowd’s not screaming at Lin’s arrival like teens greeting the Beatles, the hype is legit. Don’t throw away your shot.