Review: Despite criticisms, ‘Hamilton’ still solid

Has there ever been anything in the history of Broadway like “Hamilton?”

Certainly, there have been gargantuan hits that took the nation by storm, and we’ll know in the near-future which shows will explode in the years after shelter-in-place. The encouraging aspect of the post-pandemic Broadway reboot is a new commitment to amplifying Black playwrights in unprecedented ways. Broadway, which often puts the white in “The Great White Way” may just be ready for substantial change. Time will tell.

This is what makes “Hamilton,” now engaging in its Broadway San Jose debut through Oct. 31, such a touchstone in the discourse of Broadway history. Everything that encompassed the production – from its months long sold-out run at the Public Theatre in 2015 before its Broadway debut in August of that same year, a white-hot fire surrounded every aspect of the show. From unreal demand for rush tickets that often shut down swaths of 46th Street to impromptu performances with creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and his bevy of Broadway buds at the Richard Rodgers Theatre stage door, “Hamilton” wasn’t one singular sensation but an all-out assault of an experience.

In more recent times, there have been plenty of detractors along with criticism that has taken some of the bloom off the rose. The duality of the show’s brilliance is combined with the problematic nature of deifying the founding fathers – men with a vision to build the nation who also benefitted from slavery’s cruelty. In a particularly terrific column in Vox, Aja Romano compartmentalized this contradiction succinctly – “Is ‘Hamilton’ a brilliant, visionary reframing of the narrative of America, a revisionist apologetic paying undue worship to the Founding Fathers, or an unholy mix of both?”

Like much of the conversation that the country was engaging with in July of 2020, when the Broadway version dropped on Disney Plus, the lens through which “Hamilton” was viewed came with a different prism, which is often par for the course in theatre. Because productions are experienced live, in the moments we are living, what surrounds us outside the theatre informs how we experience a play inside the theatre.

More recent serious concerns have continued to put aspects of the show in a not-so-pleasant light. Because for whatever the show’s mania was that took place in the mid-2010s, “Hamilton” has never been immune to harsh criticisms. Yet as a piece of theatre, the show continues to hold up extremely well and carries an energy and sharpness that has sustained these last six years.

Anyone who saw the show in San Francisco before the worldwide shutdown will welcome back a few familiar faces in key roles. In the title role, Julius Thomas III carries a delightful set of chops that allow him to sing with empathy and rap with impunity. And Brandon Louis Armstrong is back, returning to the Bay Area with his sublimely smooth flow as Hercules Mulligan and James Madison. Others stand out, especially a phenomenal Donald Webber, Jr. as the highly conflicted and tortured Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s rival and assassin. The three Schuyler sisters, which include Maria Harmon as embattled Angelica, Ashley De La Rosa as Peggy and Maria, and Victoria Ann Scovens as the loyal Eliza, are the heartbeat of the show, pushing plot with a wide range of vocal stylings.

What the live show does beautifully is accentuate lots of the catchy tunes with Andy Blankenbuehler’s slick choreography, stunning in its kinetic control. The show’s soundtrack is so ubiquitous at this point, sitting and witnessing numbers such as “Satisfied,” “The Battle of Yorktown,” “Right Hand Man,” “Say No to This,” and “The Room Where it Happens” is terribly soothing. “One Last Time,” a song that speaks to our nation’s ambitions to avoid despotism and singular rule, a song as poignant and timely as it gets, is handled with aplomb by Darnell Abraham as George Washington.

While not every principal performance is of the highly sharp variety, much of the show’s brilliance is Miranda’s construction of rap lyrics featuring morsels of Biggie sprinkled throughout. Thomas Kail’s taut direction moves the show at a tight clip, punctuated constantly with Howell Binkley’s precise lighting design, Paul Tazewell’s rich costumes, David Korins’ sharp set design and the foreshadowing of Nevin Steinberg’s soundscape.

Everything the show does well is a precursor to the show’s final 10 minutes, which has always been an exercise in perfection. Not only do we see the psychology in real time of a horrendous and unstoppable choice being made, but we also experience wide-eyed insight of a lifetime of decisions that shaped a final moment and a forever viewing of a consequential, if not forgotten, founding father. While Hamilton declares early on not to throw away his shot, literally doing just that leads to Burr’s final, fatal blow.

“Hamilton” is both polarizing and promising, fantastic and frustrating. And coincidentally, one of the show’s themes, legacy, is one that the show is wrestling with. Whatever that legacy ultimately becomes, it doesn’t change what “Hamilton” will probably be for eternity – a living theatre piece that history will always have its eyes on.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Broadway San Jose presents “Hamilton”
Book, Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Music Supervision and Orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire
Choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler
Directed by Thomas Kail
Inspired by the novel “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow
The Word: It’s hard to ignore some of the criticisms surrounding the Broadway juggernaut, but as a theatre piece, “Hamilton” still holds strong.
San Jose Center for Performing Arts
Tickets range from $49 to $99. A digital lottery for $10 tickets happens daily.
For tickets and more information, call (408) 792-4111 or visit https://broadwaysanjose.com/

Cover Photo: Julius Thomas III returns to the Bay Area in the title role in “Hamilton,” running through Oct. 31 at the San Jose Center for Performing Arts. (Joan Marcus photo)

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