Deservedly drenched with international awards and accolades, megahit musical Hamilton arrives in Australia in pristine form, the terrific local cast members not throwing away their shots at future superstardom.
It is difficult to overstate the level of peak theatrical craftsmanship on display in Hamilton.
Taking on the relatively rare triple duties of book, music and lyrics, composer Lin Manuel Miranda reinvents musical theatre from the inside out. As well as having terrific source material in Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton, a significant degree of Miranda’s almighty success can be attributed to his knowledge and reverence for the existing canon of musical theatre. As a taste of this heritage, briefly sampled lyrics reference The Pirates of Penzance, South Pacific and 1776. The score may largely be hip-hop and rap, and yet there are tender ballads and characterful duets amid the explosive full company numbers in the intricately through-composed show.
Miranda’s musical artistry extends to the sophisticated inclusion of characterful leitmotifs, an aspect that works on a subconscious level at first listen, as well as rewarding repeated listening to the score.
Musical quality is at a premium, prepared to an exacting standard and supported at each performance by choice music director Laura Tipoki at the podium. The tight band brings out the full colour required for the variety of musical styles in Alex Lacamoire’s vibrant orchestrations. Vocal harmonies are nothing short of exquisite, with ensemble singing sounding fresh and natural in the pristine sound design.
The seamless collaboration of director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler sees the cast in constant fluid motion. The movement of chairs, letters and bullets is as elegant as the actual dance moves, which are painstakingly individualised and yet share a distinct, unique vocabulary. Creating a breathless cinematic feel, Kail conjures swiftly flowing scenes from minimal furniture on David Korins’ grand timber and brickwork set.
Costume designer Paul Tazewell creates the feel of an ensemble troupe of players, dressing the company in neutral beige then adding rich colours in glossy fabrics as the cast members take on the multitude of characters.
Given that Hamilton tells America’s history, local audiences may benefit from a little pre-reading to expand their knowledge beyond key figures such as Washington and Jefferson. It is worth knowing that time passes between acts one and two, and a handful of performers switch to playing a second character in act two. With this knowledge in hand, direction and performances ensure that the storytelling is as clear as the score is electrifying.
Miranda’s concept of using “actors of color to play ‘old, dead white men’” is now clearly established. For the Australian cast, this concept serves not just to present a cast that “looks like America looks now,” but also provides the opportunity for many a big break. A significant number of the cast have been seen in smaller scale, independent productions or in supporting or ensemble roles in larger productions.
Particularly striking is the work of Lyndon Watts, deservedly ascending from the ranks to star as Aaron Burr. Watts’ magnetic performance gives Burr the dangerous tension of a tightly wound panther, expertly portraying the full Salieri-like spectrum of Burr’s relationship with the Mozart-like Hamilton. Watts’ portrayal of Burr’s simmering bewilderment and frustration at his relative lack of success are utterly compelling, climaxing in his finely calibrated explosion in act two showstopper “The Room Where It Happens.”
As with the original London production, the title role of Hamilton has been cast quite young. Relative newcomer Jason Arrow brings a plucky energy to the role, especially with the frisky rap vocals. At this early point, Arrow has room to grow in regard to finessing Hamilton’s overall arc, particularly in the portrayal of the weight of Hamilton’s life experience as the story progresses.
With a recent string of excellent performances, Chloé Zuel consolidates her position as an invaluable leading lady with her heart-rending work as dear Eliza, the middle Schuyler sister who is swiftly wooed and wed by Hamilton. Zuel takes Eliza on a lucid journey from slumming socialite to devoted wife and mother, tempering Eliza’s moments of sorrow and doubt with an ever-strengthening inner core of self-belief. The very embodiment of a raw, aching nerve, Zuel repeatedly breaks hearts in act two: as a wife choosing privacy over soothing her husband’s infidelity, as a mother facing the greatest possible loss and, finally, as a widow determinedly choosing a life of service. Of these, a clear highlight is the gorgeous ballad “Burn,” performed with searing focus and striking clarity by Zuel.
Akina Edmonds charms as elder Schuyler sister, Angelica. Edmonds takes centre stage to pleasing effect in the ingeniously conceived act one number “Satisfied,” subsequently maintaining Angelica’s latent attraction to Hamilton for their ongoing interactions. With the expressive face of a silent movie star, Elandrah Eramiha scores cute laughs as youngest Schuyler sister Peggy in act one, returning in act two as sultry seductress Maria Reynolds.
Despite his tender age, Marty Alix is already a Miranda veteran, bringing the experience of roles in In The Heights and Bring It On to his finely honed dual characterisations of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton. Alix brings the text alive with fresh expression. Highly convincing as a burgeoning young man, Alix’s skilful work makes Philip’s tragic fate all the more affecting.
Victory Ndukwe brings an imposing and lively presence to the Marquis de Lafayette, cultivating the requisite dandy manner whilst avoiding any camp tendencies. Not quite nailing the jaunty air of Thomas Jefferson in act two, it is hoped that Ndukwe will bring this role up to its crowd pleasing best as the season progresses.
In the somewhat underwritten roles of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison, Shaka Cook crafts quirky characterisations, creating a sense of self-serving malevolence in act two as Madison schemes with Jefferson and Burr to discredit Hamilton.
With a solid stage presence, Matu Ngaropo gives George Washington a gentle air of authority. Ngaropo’s performance style is an example of a quality shown by the Australian cast in regard to drawing the audience towards them. Ngaropo avoids any tendency towards the bombastic in his sensitive portrayal.
Brent Hill is in his element as the deliciously pompous King George III, gradually rising to an effervescent peak when the political scene erupts upon Hamilton’s confessions in “The Reynolds Pamphlet.”
A dazzling set of triple threats, the ensemble members are an attraction in their own right, serving the story telling in sizzling style. Audience members who have only seen the Disney+ film of Hamilton have a heady new world to discover with the ensemble in full view on stage.
Already a hot ticket, the Australian production has the unique distinction of being the only production of Hamilton currently playing in the world. A legitimate musical revolution, Hamilton is sure to convert abundant newcomers to the art. Lovers of musical theatre will require no convincing to see Hamilton; the more prescient decision, finances permitting, will be how many times to attend.
Man in Chair reviewed the original Broadway cast in Hamilton.
Man in Chair reviewed the original London cast in Hamilton.
To peruse the official Hamilton Australia merchandise, click here.
Photos: Daniel Boud