There are theater events and then there are theater events. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” has landed in Hartford’s Bushnell and that, my friends, is boss of all other events on the theatrical calendar, topping everyone’s social agenda.
“Hamilton,” which continues through Dec. 30 at The Bushnell’s William H. Mortensen Hall, is pretty much as advertised. Miranda has deftly adapted Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, the heroic founding father, writer and banking whiz, who perished tragically and senselessly in a duel with his friend and political rival, Aaron Burr, who had recently lost his gubernatorial bid in New York’s 1804 election due in part to Hamilton’s very public criticism.
The novelty is that Miranda tells the statesman’s story in contemporary vernacular, specifically with hip-hop and rap, performed by young, mostly non-Caucasian actors. The result is a quicksilver, pulsating stream of sung-through, snappy narrative driving through its subject’s life for the better part of three hours.
Miranda’s concept, with Thomas Kail’s direction, is fun, vibrant and disarmingly irreverent, as when Thomas Jefferson preens and King George cavorts. Yet these two characters serve mostly as comic relief, offering a respite from Hamilton’s glide through all matters politic, romantic and military, navigating his way through perilous currents by his wit, charm and honor.
Such is the spark and style of “Hamilton” that it sails through an 80-minute first act without noteworthy conflict yet holds its audience’s attention throughout. Miranda enchants us by zipping through his subject’s orphaned, impoverished early life and focusing on Hamilton (Austin Scott) as he arrives in New York, where he soon meets such historical figures as the Marquis de Lafayette (Bryson Bruce), Burr (Josh Tower), and the Schuyler sisters Angelica (Stephanie Umoh), Peggy (Isa Briones) and Eliza (Hannah Cruz), who would soon become Hamilton’s wife.
It’s all so romantic and fairy tale-like, with actors artfully moving furniture pieces like dance partners in fluidly choreographed scene transitions, that it seems that anything is possible for our hero, his garrulous impetuosity notwithstanding.
The trouble starts in Act II when Hamilton strays in marriage and Jefferson (Bruce again) returns from France after an extended stay. As Hamilton battles blackmail and jousts with Burr and Jefferson, a veritable rock star, his life turns from a stroll through the park to one overloaded with intrigue, political rough-housing and lost loved ones.
With “Hamilton,” Miranda proves that rap is an effective and diverting vehicle for musical theater. It is innately suitable as recitative (Miranda even nods to Gilbert and Sullivan in song). Rhyme, traditionally used to point up the rhymed word, is the locomotion here. Chock-full of internal rhymes, Miranda’s lyrics are quite dense, as rhyme also functions to hasten the pace of the line. Most of the songs, therefore, chug along at a relentless rate, requiring theatergoers’ full attention without, hopefully, exhausting them.
Miranda sprinkles more traditional songs in the pop and musical theater vein to balance the score and to give us a delightful breather now and then. The Schuyler sisters’ “Helpless,” King George’s “You’ll Be Back,” and Jefferson’s Act II opener, “What’d I Miss,” not only vary the styles, but they all delight with lush melody, insouciant verve, and their music suits the characters.
It’s difficult to imagine any other staging of the musical, having experienced Kail’s original direction. It seems inseparable from Miranda’s script. David Korins’ scenic design is an open, mostly empty stage flanked by stairs leading up to an equally bare second level. Set pieces breeze on and off so that, visually and musically, “Hamilton” stops only to punctuate the end of each act. Paul Tazewell’s costumes, Howell Binkley’s lighting and Nevin Steinberg’s sound design contribute to the show’s beauty and pace.
The cast is excellent. Scott’s Hamilton is heroic in stature, long on charm and sings beautifully. Tower is a strong, sympathetic Burr, who as narrator sings much of the score. One could listen to Cruz and Umoh sing all night, as their voices soar. Peter Matthew Smith is wonderful as the somewhat delusional King George and Bruce is a ball of fire as the self-infatuated Jefferson. Paul Oakley Stovall is a strong presence and singer as George Washington.
Does “Hamilton” meet the towering expectations of theatergoers who see this musical as the second coming of “Oklahoma!”? That, of course, all depends on the individual. Some may find such recent musicals as “Fun Home,” “Once” and “Spring Awakening” as similarly innovative and still more moving. Yet whether one rides on the “Hamilton” bandwagon or not, “Hamilton” is a driving force of energy, craft, history and wit that moves as gracefully as any musical in recent memory.
E. Kyle Minor is the New Haven Register theater critic.