REVIEW: The resonance of Hamilton in 2022 as the Broadway phenomenon makes its Spokane debut

click to enlarge The cast of Hamilton tries to not throw away their shot. - JOAN MARCUS PHOTO

Joan Marcus photo

The cast of Hamilton tries to not throw away their shot.

The world has changed dramatically multiple times since Hamilton first became a Broadway sensation back in 2015. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical retelling of Alexander Hamilton’s life with a people-of-color cast became an instant classic and cultural phenomenon during an era that looks positively quaint compared to 2022. It’s a relic of the Obama era, so it’s almost impossible to look at it in the same light with the grotesque morphing of the political landscape over the past seven years. Heck, Hamilton was supposed to make its first stop in Spokane back in 2020 before a global pandemic happened. To quote the show’s opening number in reference to its titular protagonist, “The world will never be the same.”

Needless to say, taking in Hamilton‘s debut run in Spokane at the First Interstate Center for the Arts (which continues through May 22) requires more than a little bit of reflection. What about the musical still resonates even as the times have changed?

To get the basics out of the way for the uninitiated, Hamilton is a biographical hip-hop musical chronicling Alexander Hamilton’s early life as an immigrant to the United States from Nevis, (a small Caribbean island), his rise to prominence during the Revolutionary War as George Washington’s right hand man, his complicated role as a Founding Father, his marriage to Eliza Schuyler, and his longstanding friendship-turned-rivalry with Aaron Burr that eventually led to his early death. The two things that instantly made Hamilton stick out from its peers were its deft rap storytelling and the choice to cast only POC to play these White historical figures.

The casting choice remains the most compelling and interesting thematic element. Hamilton’s story is one of a scrappy immigrant, so transposing it onto POC actors opens up multiple levels of dramatic interpretation. It allows POC audiences to see their own journeys as ones that can parallel these men that are held so high, while also trying to shake White audiences of the notion that immigrants and the underclass are really that distant from the ivory idols on their collective pedestals. In some way it (ironically) whitewashes history, stripping the founding of the United States from most of its racial elements (slavery is addressed, but not dwelled on) and instead focuses on the meritocracy of great individuals. On the other hand, it more subconsciously makes the point that our country would not be where it was without the forced sacrifice and tragedy of minority communities. “Immigrants, we get the job done,” might be a cheer-inducing rallying cry line in Hamilton, but it’s also an idea that the whole show dwells on even when its not foregrounded.

It’s also easy to have soured somewhat on Hamilton‘s virtues in the proceeding years. There is undeniably an Obama-era sheen of liberal optimism that permeates the musical, which feels a touch more cloying and like naive, wide-eyed optimism than it did just a handful of years ago. It’s not that this aura rings untrue now, it just feels more like Miranda writing in dreamer mode. Moments like George Washington stepping down from the presidency to set a precedent and maintain a sense of dignity are far more likely to illicit at least half an eye-roll in the wake of the January 6 attack on the Capitol, for example. In a world where irrational White parents fear imagined threats of Critical Race Theory, Hamilton might be more vital, but seems less likely to be a barrier-breaking part of the narrative.

Certainly, the show still has some historical issues that critics can point at as flaws, but if you’re fervently criticizing the historical accuracy of smaller details in a show where most of the founding fathers are Black, you might be missing the larger theoretical point of narrative entertainment.

Beyond all the things that might shift as the years pass, the second act’s emotional core of Alexander and Eliza’s marriage, parenthood, devastating heartbreak, and forgiveness won’t stop resonating anytime soon. There may be some hurriedness to the beats of the relationship, but the tenderness that comes across in their quieter, personal moments hits the empathetic sweet spot every time.

click to enlarge FROM LEFT: Julius Thomas III's Hamilton takes center stage, but Donald Webber, Jr. as Burr steals the show. - JOAN MARCUS PHOTO

Joan Marcus photo

FROM LEFT: Julius Thomas III’s Hamilton takes center stage, but Donald Webber, Jr. as Burr steals the show.

From a pure performance perspective, the real standout in this production’s cast are Donald Webber,  Jr. as Aaron Burr and Marja Harmon playing Angelica Schuyler. Burr is not so secretly the juiciest role in the musical, the pseudo-villain and rival chronicling Hamilton’s rise and fall. Webber fully sinks his teeth into the role, bringing a magnetic propulsive energy level that none of his fellow actors come close to matching. The nearest to reaching Webber’s peak is Harmon’s Angelica who absolutely knocks her lone lead number — “Satisfied” — out of the park with a vocal presence and charisma that really makes Eliza seem like the lesser Schuyler sister.

The biggest snag about this Hamilton production at First Interstate Center for the Arts is that the sound mix was just off. I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, but Spokane deserves better sounding theater. It’s especially crucial for Hamilton which might be the most lyrical-dense and lyrically driven Broadway hit of all-time while also delivering the words at a much faster clip than any other landmark show. You don’t go to Hamilton to see the show’s rather mundane choreography, you go to hear the songs. In some ways it’s closer to a hyper-performative concert than the old notions of a chorus line musical.

Having seen the show twice live before in other cities (in addition to watching the Disney+ version and listening to the soundtrack repeatedly), I am acutely aware of what Hamilton can and should sound like. It’s not like the show is disastrously unlistenable, the vocals are just too quiet which can lead to times when they sound muffled. I could tell it wasn’t just a personal problem when the audience wasn’t laughing at certain clear joke spots because they were too tough to hear. The actors’ mics just need to be cranked up 10-20% louder so that the audience is able to hear more of the high-speed patter and harder-to-hear characters (for example, George Washington is a bass character but Darnell Abraham’s voice is so deep it becomes incredibly hard to hear his speaking lines). When I know all the words to these songs and still I can’t make out the lines characters are delivering a lot of the time, I can only imagine what it must be like for Hamilton newbies (the first-timer person I went with said they couldn’t make out very much and only followed the plot because they study history and already knew the major beats). But it’s more a fixable frustration rather than a show-ruining issue.

Hamilton remains absolutely worth your time if you have any interest in musical theater, hip-hop, or historical drama. It might not feel quite as fresh and invigorating as it did during the height of Hamiltonmania, but it’s still a vital pop culture touchstone for the last decade. Don’t throw away your shot to see it in Spokane.

Hamilton • Thru May 22 • $49-$249 • All ages • First Interstate Center for the Arts • 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. • firstinterstatecenter.org • 509-279-7000

Article Source: Inlander