They did not throw away their shot. Given the chance to create an entirely new version of “Hamilton” for Chicago, the show’s creative team assembled an impressive array of performers who wring a great deal of comedy and a number of electric moments from the musical. The Broadway theater that provides “Hamilton’s” New York home has its charms, but it is more squat and compact than the lofty, airy PrivateBank Theatre, and the cast of the Chicago version of the show certainly has the vocal power and panache to fill every inch of it. This “sit-down” production should get comfortable: It’s likely to be around for a while.
Chicago’s “Hamilton” may have also created a few new stars: Joshua Henry practically burned down the room where it happened, so impressive were his star turns as Aaron Burr; Chris De’Sean Lee was both mellifluous and hilarious in his twin roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson; and Jonathan Kirkland’s George Washington was an imposing and charismatic presence. Like our nation’s first president, Kirkland is a tall man who towers over his compatriots, all of whom are believably prepared to follow him into battle.
Given its location, perhaps it’s especially appropriate that the Chicago take on “Hamilton” is both forthright and sincere. It’s a mistake to assume that Midwesterners don’t appreciate irony; the laughter that erupted every time Burr raised a skeptical eyebrow is proof of that. And of course, Chicago knows all about bruising political battles; residents of the city Carl Sandburg called “the hog butcher for the world” are intimately familiar with how the sausage gets made.
But this is a “Hamilton” in which considered restraint often prevails, except in rare moments when anguished emotions break through the barriers of polite behavior. In that sense, the entire production — directed by Thomas Kail, who staged it on Broadway — reflects the considered approach of Miguel Cervantes, who offers a very different Hamilton than that of musical’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who played the title role in the Broadway production until he exited the show in July.
The most notable aspect of Cervantes’ performance is its attentiveness. His Hamilton ponders and listens; he yearns more than he burns. Physically, the actor gives Hamilton a coiled intensity, especially in the first act, when the hard-charging immigrant is building his reputation as one of the rising stars of the American revolution. Where Miranda’s Hamilton was insistent, insecure and quick to anger, Cervantes’ version of the man is anxious and watchful. The musicality of the actor’s voice is exceptional, and when he sings “I never thought I’d live past twenty” in “My Shot,” the combination of consternation and earnest relief in his voice is hard to resist.
But it’s interesting to note how still Cervantes’ Hamilton often is. He’s not a betrayer or seducer — thus he’s a easy mark for Samantha Marie Ware’s memorably soulful Maria Reynolds — and he looks most at ease wearing glasses and sitting behind a desk. This Hamilton is still protean, but he’s as much a thinker as he is a doer. It would not be surprising to learn that he spends his time offstage composing the 86th Federalist Paper.
Cervantes broke up the audience by packing three different emotions — arrogance, delight and false modesty — into the line “I was chosen for the Constitutional Convention!” but the hustling immigrant does not often get the most overtly comic material. No matter who’s playing him, Hamilton frequently serves as the straight man to a series of larger-than-life characters, and the founding fathers around him in this production are certainly electrifying, and occasionally walk up to the edge of overshadowing the title character without quite doing so.
Along those lines, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if, over time, the relationships between the character and his two great loves, Eliza (Ari Afsar) and Angelica Schuyler (Karen Olivo), will accrue a little more depth and urgency. The chemistry between Hamilton and each Schuyler sister isn’t always easily detectable, but each of the three performers displays impressive talents on an individual basis.
A few of the Chicago production’s tendencies come together in the Act 2 song “It’s Quiet Uptown.” It is, of course, designed to break hearts, even those made of stone, and it had that effect in this cast’s hands, but the sniffles in the audience were at their height during Angelica’s portions of the song. The maturity and knowing compassion Olivo brought to the tune amplified its impassioned gravitas, and in general, her commanding presence made one wish that the most tenacious Schuyler sister got more to do in “Hamilton.” The Tony winner’s acting chops were vividly on display in all her scenes: The way Angelica composed a false happy face for party guests at the end of “Satisfied” incisively captured the character’s sadness and regret.
Cervantes’ performance during “It’s Quiet Uptown” was collected and almost too reserved, but near the end, Hamilton broke down during one line. That moment stood in contrast to the restraint that prevailed during the rest of the song, and those few seconds of anguish functioned like an arrow to the heart. Just as moving was the tragic family tableau that preceded “It’s Quiet Uptown,” which was almost unbearably full of well-earned pathos.
Those were only two of a number of high points. The first act’s core foursome of Lafayette, Hamilton, John Laurens (José Ramos) and Hercules Mulligan (Wallace Smith) instantly established a winning rapport, and their occasional moments of group harmony were a treat. “The Room Where It Happens,” which Henry filled with very effective operatic flourishes, may well have been the night’s apex; the wounded ferocity of his Burr, who stalks the stage with upright dignity and sinuous grace, is something to behold.
George Washington’s entrance in “Guns and Ships” supplies a frisson of excitement as well. Kirkland’s version of America’s president is more forceful Gospel preacher than smooth R&B crooner, but there was a winning sensitivity to his performance, especially during the spectacular “One Last Time.” His Washington is, in some respects, a square but kindly First Dad who cares a lot about how his “kids” are doing.
According to his cast biography, Lee just completed his junior year of college, but the actor playing Lafayette and Jefferson looked perfectly at home on stage with veteran performers, and his bounding energy was infectious. Given how much broad, sly and subtle humor the entire cast found in almost every scene, it’s almost unfair to single out the comic timing of Lee and Alexander Gemignani, who plays King George, but it’s hard to believe anyone on stage was having more fun than those two.
One priceless comedic moment came when Hamilton gave Eliza a stunned look as she began beatboxing during “Take a Break.” Hamilton’s deadpan shock was understandable. Afsar’s smiling Eliza is like one of Disney’s most upbeat princesses come to life, and though her voice is impressive, a little more shading in her performance would make her wholesome, pure version of the character a more logical fit with Cervantes’ pensive Hamilton.
In his dual roles as Philip, the youngest Hamilton, and John Laurens, the most idealistic of the revolutionary soldiers, Ramos deserves special notice for the supple strength and sweetness of his voice. As a whole, the company displays a crisp polish and the dancers executed Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography with elegant energy. The music sounded terrific, though there were one or two moments in which it came close to drowning out the performers on stage, a slight hiccup that’s very likely to be worked out quickly.
As productions of “Hamilton” ripple out through the world, it’ll be fascinating to see what qualities and themes are highlighted in each new incarnation of the show. Few works of art are more concerned with the malleability of narratives, and it’s refreshing that the Chicago show, while remaining true to Miranda’s eclectic and optimistic vision, has several marked differences from the one that planted the original seeds of “Hamilton” mania. “Hamilton” will endure and evolve because the ideas that power it are as restless and contradictory as its title subject, and ideally each new group of performers will be able to create their own legacies of revolution and regret. That mutability feels appropriate for the story of a man who couldn’t stop creating and who lived several lifetimes in less than half a century.
“Vive la différence,” as Lafayette might say, and in that spirit, the case can be made that this production’s signature number is not “Hurricane” or even the always enjoyable “My Shot,” but “Dear Theodosia.” In the Chicago show, the primary emotion animating the fraught Burr-Hamilton relationship is wonderment: At various points, each man can’t quite believe how angry, annoyed, or grudgingly impressed he is. As their personal and political battle progresses, both men alternate between stoic determination and surprise at the fact that they care about each other’s antics as much as they do.
But hope has a way of undoing both men’s carefully constructed defenses; you can see it when Hamilton finally gets to command troops in the field, and it’s plain on Burr’s face when he’s certain his rival is about to endorse his presidential bid.
No spoilers on how that goes, but in “Dear Theodosia,” their strategies of repression lift for the best possible reasons. Both actors give the sentiments of the song shadings that are subtle but no less moving for their lack of pyrotechnics. To see their shared sense of wonder used in service of a song so hopeful and sweet felt indicative of where this production’s heart is: Camouflaged, perhaps, but right out in the open.