Words, words, words.
When Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls engaged in an epic, genre-changing feud resulting in two raw-as-hell diss tracks in the ‘90s, the viciousness and furious, visceral nature of their words leapt through the speakers right into the listener’s soul, each calculated word sharp as a dagger.
Lin-Manuel Miranda first drew laughs when he spoke of Alexander Hamilton as someone who embodies hip-hop when he presented the idea for his concept album about the first U.S. treasury secretary in front of President Obama back in 2009. Upon further review, he was damn accurate. A scrappy young immigrant from the Caribbean used words to bring forth unprecedented power to himself and his new nation, and ultimately, created an enemy who would then turn around and take his life away. Hamilton was engaged in one helluva hip-hop feud from the moment he landed on the mainland.
In all its big, beautiful glory, the sensation “Hamilton: An American Musical” has landed with a vengeance to the SHN Orpheum Theatre, on a return engagement from its five-month sold out Bay Area run in 2017. This “And Peggy” cast, most recently in Puerto Rico with Miranda’s return to the role, is rich and hearty with talent, presenting a smooth as silk show loaded with pop culture and Broadway touchstones. It also brings plenty of hardware, flanked by Tonys, Grammys and Pulitzers.
By now, the story is familiar to anyone who has been in a room with any Broadway-loving teen in the last four years. The young spitfire Alexander Hamilton (sharp and smooth Julius Thomas III) arrives from the Caribbean to a new New York, an underdeveloped territory bustling with energy and possibilities. In his early moments, he runs into the young wunderkind Aaron Burr (a fantastic Donald Webber, Jr.), who is also looking to make his mark on the world. But with Hamilton’s penchant for putting words together in powerful combinations, he climbs to the top of the food chain among the elite forefathers, besting them at every turn because of his writing abilities.
He is also driven by a gigantic chip on his shoulder, a chip that has him taking aim at anyone who crosses him. This includes critical relationships with the general George Washington (a heart-stopping turn by Isaiah Johnson), later interactions with Thomas Jefferson (athletic and energetic Simon Longnight who plays Lafayette in act one) and of course, Burr.
The viewpoint of Hamilton as an all-pen, no-muscle guy eats at his craw. Instead of simply planning the battles, he wants in on the battles, gathering with his contemporaries to change the entire scope of the American Revolution and ultimately going on the write 51 Federalist Papers that defend the newly-formed Constitution. Doing what he did would be considered a life’s work for many, but for Hamilton, there was still a banking system to develop and a nation’s capital to move elsewhere.
There is so much that makes this show a gargantuan spectacle, despite some of the dramaturgical history that’s a hint spotty. No matter though. Hamilton is a story loaded with so many doors that anyone can enter through. If you’re a rap fan, you will certainly be thrilled to find the palpable references to Miranda’s reverence for such a raw art form, the only genre which can spit out this much history in such a relatively short run time. Whether it’s the many references to Biggie in moments such as “Ten Dual Commandments” or where he saves his greatest rap references in both “Cabinet Battles, a clear nod to Grandmaster Flash and Biggie, Miranda’s hip-hop mind operates on an entirely different level.
As the title character, Thomas III is solid, and plays the earlier moments with a more effective, youthful spirit. All three Schuyler sisters come just as strong, each taking turns with their signature moments. There is a empathetic turn from Eliza, portrayed by Julia K. Harriman. You have a charming kookiness to Darilyn Castillo’s Peggy, but a more sinister portrayal when she flips over to Maria Reynolds, the woman at the center of Hamilton’s infidelities. The ensuing scandal essentially ended his chance at the presidency. And Sabrina Sloan’s Angelica is terrific when she sharpens her painful recollection of the fresh-faced soldier boy in “Satisfied.”
As the Hamilmen go, the most effortless spitting of a flow is that of Brandon Louis Armstrong, who portrays Hercules Mulligan, a character who was historically high on life. Both he and a fantastically youthful Ruben J. Carbajal as John Laurens are a magical pairing, bringing strong depth to Hamilton’s arc in the process. Both do some wonderful things to connect our own visions of the war to such young, fresh-faced children with big guns.
The show is a hit parade spread out across multiple genres. And while many signature songs such as “Hamilton,” “My Shot,” “Say No to This” and “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” will always be thrilling, the music positively soars with Andy Blankenbuehler’s game-changing choreography and Thomas Kail’s taut direction, which has long-reaching impacts. Just notice the little hints, the short, compact touches that flow through the staging which allow the vision of this play to function with grace and zeal.
While Miranda’s score is the star of the show, the piece is staged to have a full impact on the storytelling, with so many nuances that add up to sheer movement magic. The first 150 minutes of the play and how it moves through the world sets the stage for the perfect, final 15. A shoulder shrug here, a quick shift there and slow-moving bullets fill the space with the highest level of artistic truth.
All of this artistry is unified by three critical components – the scenic design of David Korins, Paul Tazely’s delicious period costumes and the oh-so-sharp lighting of Howell Binkley. Those lights put beautiful buttons on every critical moment of the drama.
“Hamilton” is many things. Like Miranda’s prior signature piece “In the Heights,” it’s a story of the power and strength of the immigrant. It’s the story of hip-hop, of Biggie and Tupac and Jay Z and Nas. It’s the story of legacy, asking us how we want others to remember us. It’s the story of a man who just wanted to be in a room where it happens, now remembered simply as a damn fool. It’s the story of our country, and what it means to transition and grow with grace and selflessness. And most importantly, it’s a story still being written.
Like Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the story is spelled out and spoiled at the onset, but what matters most is the journey we take to get there. Like “Hamlet,” no matter how many views or listens we give it, there’s always something new to learn inside of such a magnetic experience.
And like the immigrants it champions, this company of “Hamilton” gets the job done.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
SHNSF presents “Hamilton: An American Musical”
Book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler
Based on the biography “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow
Directed by Thomas Kail
The Word: Hip-hop and history, the portrait of an imperfect perfectionist, the ten dollar founding father, and the world he turned upside down is radiant and stunning in this game-changing production.
Stars: 5 out of 5
The SHN Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market Street, San Francisco, CA
Running time: Two hours, 55 minutes with one intermission
Tickets on sale through Sept. 8th
Tickets range from $111 – $686
44 tickets sold via lottery two days before each performance: http://hamiltonmusical.com/lottery
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com