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Off Broadway Review: ‘Hamilton’ by Lin-Manuel Miranda

With:
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Phillipa Soo, Leslie Odom, Jr., Renee Elise Goldsberry, Christopher Jackson, Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Brian D'Arcy James.

What musical idiom comes to mind when you think of Alexander Hamilton, a revered Founding Father of this nation, aide de camp to General George Washington during the Revolutionary War, first Secretary of the Treasury, founder of the Federalist Party, architect of our banking system, and designer of our Constitution? In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliantly inventive bio-musical, “Hamilton,” the great man is winningly imagined as an orphaned immigrant, a political rebel, a reckless lover, and a non-stop talker — clearly, a born rapper.

There should be a huge audience for this irresistible show. Although the premise sounds outlandish, it takes about two seconds to surrender to the musical sweep of the sung-through score and to Miranda’s amazing vision of his towering historical subject as an ideological contemporary who reflects the thoughts and speaks the language of a vibrant young generation of immigrant strivers. It’s a wonderfully humanizing view of history.

The rousing opening number, brimming with historical detail and bristling with energy, offers a thrilling insight into the way that Miranda (a force of nature who wrote the book, music and lyrics, and plays the title role) responded to his primary source material, Ron Chernow’s 800-page biography of Hamilton. He saw a ballsy foreigner, the “bastard orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman” as a snooty John Adams branded him, who emigrated to North America in 1772 from his birthplace in the West Indies and discovered a whole colony of rebellious firebrands just like himself.

“My name is Alexander Hamilton,” the brash young refugee declares himself in this high-voltage rap number. “And there’s a million things I haven’t done / But just you wait … just you wait.”

Whoever you are and wherever you came from before you landed in this colonial backwater, everyone has an identity and everyone has a story. To Miranda, it’s not only important who lives and who dies in the founding of the new nation, it also matters who tells your story. The entire ensemble of superbly cast historical figures, from the Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs) and James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan) to Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and George Washington (Christopher Jackson), tell Hamilton’s story.

As he did with Miranda’s ground-breaking first musical, “In the Heights,” helmer Thomas Kail draws the eye to those intimate scenes when words of love or hate are exchanged, while keeping the stage clear for full-scale production numbers that engage the entire ensemble. David Korins’ raw-wood set comes with an efficiently purposed revolve, along with functional ladders and a catwalk on the upper level, to create plenty of floor space for choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler to work his wizardry.

For a singing show, this is very much a dancing show. And for singers, these performers aren’t too proud — or clumsy — to dance.  Among other well-constructed production numbers, the Battle of Yorktown is so dynamically staged, it might better be called the Dance-Battle of Yorktown.

But this clean space is far from a blank slate.  Paul Tazewell’s carefully built period costumes — tight breeches and fancy fitted jackets for the men, bodice-hugging gowns for the ladies — establish a period-appropriate sense of time and place for the too-short span of Hamilton’s life.

Above all, this is a stage that lends itself to Miranda’s all-embracing style of storytelling.  In his vision, “The ten-dollar founding father without a father / Got a lot farther by working a lot harder / By being a lot smarter / By being a self-starter.”  Which is a succinct description of all the born-to-succeed immigrants who ever made it to these shores. But Hamilton also had a character flaw — a reckless streak that earned him political enemies and cost him his life in a duel with a more subtle schemer, Thomas Jefferson’s Vice President, Aaron Burr, an irresistibly charming villain in Odom’s charismatic perf.

The musical idiom Miranda has chosen to tell his story is astonishingly fluid. A debate among the quarrelsome members of Washington’s fractious cabinet over Hamilton’s plan to establish a national bank is staged as a fierce rap battle, complete with microphones, take-down insult lyrics, and noisy cheering sections.  But there are also melodic love ballads, gentle lullabies, martial airs, R&B power ballads, a hint of dissonant jazz, and sad songs of operatic angst. (And is that a snatch of Gilbert & Sullivan I hear?)

The music is exhilarating, but the lyrics are the big surprise. The sense as well as the sound of the sung dialogue has been purposely suited to each character. George Washington, a stately figure in Jackson’s dignified performance, sings in polished prose. The irrepressible Diggs, inspired casting for the Marquis de Lafayette, lightly, liltingly voices that Frenchman’s mercurial wit. The signature “Yo!” of Miranda’s Hamilton — as in: “Hey, yo, I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy and hungry / And I’m not throwing away my shot” — pointedly captures the flamboyant style of the hip-hop artist.

Howell Binkley’s lighting design adjusts the heat level for every character.  The warmest tones adorn the three Schuyler sisters: Phillipa Soo’s lovely Eliza, our hero’s loyal, long-suffering wife; Angelica, the older sister who secretly loved him, a character played with unexpected depth by Renee Elise Goldsberry; and Peggy, the young innocent played by Jasmine Cephas Jones, who has another, juicier role as Hamilton’s mistress.

The brightest spotlight shines on King George III, divinely costumed and played with delicious wit by Brian Darcy James, whose forked tongue drips with venom for his wayward subjects. “I’ll love you to my dying days,” he promises. “So don’t throw away this thing we had / Cuz when push comes to shove / I will kill your friends and family / To remind you of my love.”

For a character-centric bio-musical, “Hamilton” really spreads the wealth around. Even secondary characters like the doomed John Laurens (in a touching performance from Anthony Ramos), the South Carolina statesman who was killed before he could organize his dream regiment of freed slaves for the war, has his moment.

But in the end, Miranda’s impassioned narrative of one man’s story becomes the collective narrative of a nation, a nation built by immigrants who occasionally need to be reminded where they came from.

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Off Broadway Review: 'Hamilton' by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Public Theater/Newman Theater; 299 seats; $120 top. Opened Feb. 17, 2015. Reviewed Feb. 13. Running time: TWO HOURS, 45 MIN.

Production: A Public Theater presentation of a musical in two acts, with book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda; inspired by "Alexander Hamilton" by Ron Chernow.

Creative: Directed by Thomas Kail. Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler. Sets, David Korins; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Nevin Steinberg; hair & wigs, Charles LaPointe; arrangements, Alex Lacamoire & Lin-Manuel Miranda; orchestrations & music direction, Alex Lacamoire; production stage manager James Latus.

Cast: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Phillipa Soo, Leslie Odom, Jr., Renee Elise Goldsberry, Christopher Jackson, Daveed Diggs, Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Brian D'Arcy James.

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