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Wednesday
Dec122018

"Hamilton" a Dynamite Theatrical Experience at the Peace Center

By Paul Hyde/Anderson Observer

You can believe all the great things you’ve heard about “Hamilton.” The national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical at the Peace Center is dynamite, a brilliant theatrical experience that lives up to its hype.

The national tour of "Hamilton" continues through Sunday at the Peace Center.It’s a very American story of an impoverished immigrant from the Caribbean who makes good in the land of opportunity.

It’s also a love story, and a love letter to our founding fathers and mothers.

And it’s the arts event of the year in the Upstate.

What you may not know is that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s remarkable, game-changing musical nicely balances revolution with tradition. The show tells the story of Alexander Hamilton – the fellow on the $10 bill and the creator of America’s economic system – through a virtuosic outburst of rap music.

Yet, the show also features traditional -- and highly appealing -- song and dance numbers in the styles of R&B, jazz, Britpop and good ol’ musical theater. Miranda, a dynamic wordsmith and theater pro, drops tasty references to Shakespeare, Gilbert and Sullivan and “South Pacific,” among many others.

At almost three hours with intermission, the show, which also won the Pulitzer Prize, is a lot more substantial – but also funnier – than the usual blockbuster musical. Washington, Hamilton and Jefferson conduct war, compose the Constitution and outline the economic structure of a new nation.

The show’s dialogue, conveyed in often briskly-paced rap, approaches Shakespearean lengths. The large principal cast also puts one in mind of the breadth of Shakespeare’s plays or a Wagnerian opera.

“Hamilton” is crammed with words and, yes, it’s fair to say the show makes demands on a modern audience’s attention span. 

At the center of the story is Hamilton himself, the fast-talking, fast-writing man with a mission and overwhelming ambition. His friend and murderous rival, Aaron Burr, serves as an embittered narrator with a front seat to Hamilton’s meteoric rise to become the first U.S. secretary of the Treasury.

“Hamilton” certainly qualifies as the musical of the modern resistance, with its emphasis on the central role played by immigrants in our great Nation of Immigrants. Today, when refugees and immigrants are often shunned in our nation, “Hamilton” is a keen reminder of our roots.

The show’s most famous line -- “Immigrants, we get the job done” – inspired enthusiastic applause on the night I attended, as it does most anywhere the musical is staged.

With black and Hispanic actors in period costumes portraying white historical figures, the cast looks like America today rather than the American of 1776. The show’s diversity and hip-hop music remind an audience that the ongoing American revolution – and its vision of a more inclusive nation – belongs to the young.

Our hero Alexander Hamilton speaks in contemporary rap, but he achieves fame and influence the old-fashioned way -- by earning it: “by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter,” as the opening number makes clear.

I think history buffs will love the show, based on Ron Chernow’s sprawling 2004 biography of Hamilton. The musical gets the broad outlines of our nation’s story correct – particularly the shifting loyalties in an America founded on the sort of brutal factionalism that continues today. It’s a bit jarring, to say the least, to see Jefferson and Madison played as comic characters – but they’re certainly funny.

Miranda is not out to diminish the founding fathers. Quite the opposite: The musical is patriotic, awestruck by the achievements of the founders.

And it’s gratifying to see the revolutionary war hero John Laurens, who was born and died in South Carolina, occupying a prominent role in the story of “Hamilton.” Laurens was a good friend of Hamilton, maybe his lover. The city and county of Laurens in the Upstate is named after John Laurens’ father, Henry.

The electrifying, high-octane direction and choreography are by, respectively, Thomas Kail and Andy Blankenbuehler.

The cast is superb. Joseph Morales is sympathetic in the tour de force role of Hamilton, a mix of pluck and insecurity. Nik Walker, a commanding actor with tremendous charisma, plays Burr.

Jon Patrick Walker is a delight as King George III, who comments on the revolution with prissy petulance.

Shoba Narayan is beautiful in voice and presence as Eliza Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton’s wife. Ta’Rea Campbell, as Eliza’s sister Angelica Schuyler, soars in her numbers.

Marcus Choi is the formidable George Washington. Several actors do double duty, embracing their roles with gusto: Kyle Scatliffe (Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson), Fergie L. Philippe (Hercules Mulligan/James Madison), Elijah Malcomb (John Laurens/Philip Hamilton) and Nyla Sostre (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds).

Wonza Johnson, a graduate of the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, offers a solid contribution in three roles (Philip Schuyler, James Reynolds, the Doctor) – and substitutes for Hamilton in some shows.

The entire cast sounds magnificent in big ensemble numbers like “Yorktown.”

David Korins’ economical, rough-hewn set of planks, stairs and ropes suggests an 18th century port which, to the refugee and immigrant, must have been the symbolic equivalent of a Statue of Liberty in colonial America.

This dazzling touring production of “Hamilton” continues through Sunday. Some tickets may remain. Call the Peace Center at 864-467-3000 or see the website peacecenter.org.

Paul Hyde, a veteran Upstate journalist, writes about the arts for the Anderson Observer. Write to him at paulhydeus@yahoo.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.

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