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updated: 10/20/2016 11:15 AM

'Hamilton' triumphs in its Chicago premiere

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  • Alexander Hamilton (Miguel Cervantes), second from left, prepares for revolution along with John Laurens (Jose Ramos), left, Aaron Burr (Joshua Henry), second from right, and Hercules Mulligan (Wallace Smith) in the Chicago production of "Hamilton."

    Alexander Hamilton (Miguel Cervantes), second from left, prepares for revolution along with John Laurens (Jose Ramos), left, Aaron Burr (Joshua Henry), second from right, and Hercules Mulligan (Wallace Smith) in the Chicago production of "Hamilton."
    Courtesy of Joan Marcus

  • The Broadway blockbuster "Hamilton," by composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda and based on Ron Chernow's biography of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, opened Wednesday in Chicago.

    The Broadway blockbuster "Hamilton," by composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda and based on Ron Chernow's biography of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, opened Wednesday in Chicago.
    Courtesy of Joan Marcus

 
 

If art can help heal a fractured nation, "Hamilton" might be the tonic for our time. And what a magnificent tonic it is.

Lin-Manuel Miranda's impassioned, energetic musical demonstrates to theater lovers the breadth and scope of hip-hop. It demonstrates to hip-hop fans how theater reveals to us our essential selves. It reminds us of the vital role immigrants played in our history. "Hamilton" reminds us that alongside the nation's Founding Fathers there were Founding Mothers. It celebrates both the revolutionary spirit of young people and the careful consideration of their elders. It points out how scandals, partisanship, arguments over government's role and states' rights have rocked the nation since it began. Still the nation stands.

The bio-musical about Alexander Hamilton, the orphaned immigrant who penned most of "The Federalist Papers" and served as the nation's first treasury secretary, opened Wednesday at Chicago's PrivateBank Theatre. The first production outside of New York (and the hottest theater ticket in town), "Hamilton" played to a capacity crowd that included composer/lyricist/writer Miranda and author Ron Chernow, whose 2004 biography inspired the show.

Tipping its hat to the classic musical, "Hamilton" offers a fresh, compelling examination of ambition and legacy, friendship and love, betrayal and forgiveness, revolution and governance. Not only does it pay homage to a Founding Father, a tribute devotees argue is long overdue, but also it portrays the birth of a nation, chronicling how -- "in a world turned upside down" -- rebel leaders turned into statesmen.

Karen Olivo, left, Ari Afsar and Samantha Marie Ware play the Schuyler sisters in the Chicago production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's award-winning bio-musical "Hamilton."
Karen Olivo, left, Ari Afsar and Samantha Marie Ware play the Schuyler sisters in the Chicago production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's award-winning bio-musical "Hamilton." - Courtesy of Joan Marcus

Their transformation unfolds to a propulsive, endlessly tuneful score rooted in hip-hop, rap and R&B with a splash of boogie-woogie and 1960s British pop. This irresistible combination of old and new -- which Miranda pairs with droll, incisive lyrics -- is one of the supreme delights of what is an accessible, well-constructed show.

Thomas Kail's direction has a sense of urgency, which David Korins' revolving set accentuates. We get a sense of characters caught up in the whirlwind of history. That restlessness is reflected in Andy Blankenbuehler's pulsating, evocative choreography. But "Hamilton" is not all fireworks.

Joshua Henry delivers a showstopping turn as Aaron Burr in Lin-Manuel Miranda's Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning "Hamilton" in an open run at Chicago's PrivateBank Theatre.
Joshua Henry delivers a showstopping turn as Aaron Burr in Lin-Manuel Miranda's Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning "Hamilton" in an open run at Chicago's PrivateBank Theatre. - Courtesy of Joan Marcus

Kail's production also has a graceful intimacy. It's apparent in the duet where new fathers Alexander Hamilton (Miguel Cervantes) and Aaron Burr (Joshua Henry) contemplate their children's futures. It's evident in newcomer Ari Afsar's raw, exposed performance of Eliza Hamilton's reaction to her husband's betrayal and in their poignant reconciliation after the death of their son in the musical's most emotionally gripping moment.

Cervantes is an appealing Hamilton, transitioning credibly from a brash, brilliant youth with an impolitic nature into a statesman whose maturity has come at a high price.

The stately, formidable Jonathan Kirkland is George Washington, the elder statesman and "Hamilton's" moral authority. Kirkland holds his own among Broadway veterans Henry, Alexander Gemignani and Tony Award-winner Karen Olivo. So does Wallace Smith, who plays the starchy James Madison and college student Chris De'Sean Lee who plays preening Thomas Jefferson.

But Henry, Gemignani and Olivo aren't merely stars, in "Hamilton" they're meteors. Each stops the show. The magnificent Henry does it a couple of times.

Alexander Gemignani steals the show as King George in Broadway in Chicago's "Hamilton," by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Alexander Gemignani steals the show as King George in Broadway in Chicago's "Hamilton," by Lin-Manuel Miranda. - Courtesy of Joan Marcus

Gemignani appears in only four scenes. And he steals every one as a cheeky King George, the bemused monarch convinced that his unruly subjects will tire of democracy and return to the fold. Just try to take your eyes off Olivo, a powerful singer and an actress of great depth. She plays Eliza's older sister (and proto-feminist) Angelica Schuyler, Hamilton's intellectual soul mate, who surrenders him out of love for Eliza.

Then there is Henry as the ever-politic Burr, Hamilton's political rival and the show's narrator. An imposing presence with a beautiful voice, Henry is also an impressive actor whose complex, expertly crafted performance is ideally suited to this brilliantly realized show.

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