‘Hamilton’ triumphs in Chicago

The Broadway sensation, lauded for viewing history through a contemporary musical filter, comes to the Midwest.

click to enlarge Miguel Cervantes plays Alexander Hamilton in the just-opened Chicago production. - Photo: Joan Marcus
Photo: Joan Marcus
Miguel Cervantes plays Alexander Hamilton in the just-opened Chicago production.
Last Friday, I was in Chicago to see the recently opened second production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hip Hop historical musical Hamilton. The show, based on a 2005 biography by Ron Chernow about Alexander Hamilton, a lesser known but influential Founding Father who died in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804, has been a phenomenon in New York for two years. Now it was ready for Chicago, and I was eager for it, sitting near the stratosphere of Chicago’s 110-year-old PrivateBank Theatre.

Using Hip Hop and Rap melodies and rhythms familiar to America in the 21st-century, Miranda populated his production with African-American and Hispanic actors. Hip Hop’s rapid-fire language proved to be the perfect vehicle for Hamilton’s nearly 50 numbers, creating a fitting portrait of Hamilton, himself a prolific writer. The musical’s acclaim began with a sold-out run at New York City’s Public Theater in early 2015, followed by a Broadway engagement that captured the whole nation’s attention. President Barack Obama had something to do with that; he took his daughters to see the Broadway production while it still was in previews in July 2015. 

The show, with Miranda in the lead role, officially opened in early August of 2015 and tickets instantly became scarce, often being scalped for as much as $1,000. (I had hoped to see it during a trip to New York last November, but tickets were beyond my means.) It won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and 11 Tony Awards, including best musical, score, book, orchestration, direction and choreography. Many of its performers were honored individually, including Miranda.

Hamilton will be on Broadway for years (it’s already sold out into 2017), even with Miranda departed from the title role. And its fame is growing through additional productions (Chicago now; London in Oct. 2017) and a national tour launching in San Francisco in March. So far, 18 cities have been announced, the closest being Cleveland. Only three have dates, and those are relatively long engagements. So if you want to see it anytime soon, you’ll have to travel.

When my son’s wife told me that her work as a Girl Scout leader in Chicago gave access to surprisingly affordable tickets, I jumped at the opportunity. In fact, my son’s family, including my grandchildren, ages 8 and 11, and my wife and I all went together. Three generations, all excited about seeing the same show. That felt rather unprecedented. The 175-minute soundtrack played in the car for my trip to Chicago, and it was on at my son’s house when we arrived. 

So that’s how I ended up at the Chicago production, just two days after Hamilton opened there. From the top of the second balcony, one row from the theater’s back wall, I had a bird’s-eye view of the stage, far below. The audience was buzzing, taking selfies, clearly jazzed about catching an early performance. When the theater darkened for the opening number, shrieks and cheers rivaled those at Rock concerts by world-famous musicians. 

I’m amazed at how the show has permeated American culture with amazing speed. Everyone around me at the theater — including my 11-year-old grandson — seemed to know some of the lyrics. My perch provided a view of the show’s inventive choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, who graduated from Cincinnati’s Saint Xavier High School. The performers moved constantly on a kaleidoscopically lit stage featuring concentric revolving platforms. 

Characters from American history entered and exited the action, leaping from pools of light to mesmerizing grids and patterns. The dancing ensemble, male and female, wears neutral 18th-century base garments — sleeveless buttoned vests and breeches — and boots, occasionally slipping on a dress or an 18th-century military uniform for a specific scene. But such costumes are shed in a flash, with the dancers cartwheeling back to movement in support of the vibrant storytelling.

Miguel Cervantes plays the loquacious, impetuous and brilliant Hamilton, contrasted against his nemesis and opposite in a fatal duel, the cautious and jealous Burr, played by Joshua Henry. Chris De’Sean Lee is the Marquis de Lafayette, the brave French military officer, in Act I; Lee returns in Act II as arrogant, dismissive Thomas Jefferson. Ari Afsar is Eliza, Hamilton’s devoted wife (her song “Helpless” beautifully describes love at first sight). Karen Olivo (trained at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music in the 1990s) plays Eliza’s devoted sister Angelica, who has a profound intellectual and emotional attachment to her brother-in-law.

Especially memorable is Alexander Gemignani playing a bejeweled, ermine-trimmed King George III of Great Britain. His tongue-in-cheek songs, more BritPop than Hip Hop, are Hamilton’s comic relief. He royally proclaims to the bumptious Americans that “You’ll Be Back,” singing, “And when push comes to shove/I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love.” Gemignani’s voice resonated with bemused petulance and a patronizing confidence that had everyone giggling. 

 I’ve followed composer-lyricist Miranda for nearly a decade. He’s just 35. In 2009, his first show, In the Heights, about New York’s Dominican-American neighborhood of Washington Heights, was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and won four Tonys. 

That show’s success led Miranda to the White House early in President Obama’s first term. At a 2009 “Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word,” he was invited to perform something from his award-winning show. Instead, he offered a number from his new project, The Hamilton Mixtape, a Hip Hop tune about Alexander Hamilton. The elite audience in the East Room was amused, then amazed — as has been everyone with Miranda’s accomplishment, once Hamilton the musical became reality. 

Last Friday evening, PBS’s Great Performances aired Hamilton’s America, a documentary tracing the creation of Miranda’s show and providing such comments from politicians and historians about Hamilton as “young, scrappy and hungry” and a true founder of America. First Lady Michelle Obama has called the show “the best piece of art in any form that I’ve ever seen in my life.” I include myself among the 1,800 people in Friday’s sold-out audience who rapturously echoed that assessment. Hamilton is a theatrical milestone, be it in New York or now Chicago. ©

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