It’s almost unavoidable not to be swept up in the hype that surrounds the world’s reigning musical. After a short run of previews, Hamilton opened in Melbourne on Thursday night in a dressy mega celebrity event, unleashing its fabulousness in front of an audience worked up with excitement and cementing theatrical history on the city.
This guy’s verdict? Hamilton is an astonishing achievement and a must-see musical tour de force.
Of course, that has already been proven by the string of awards it has picked up since opening on Broadway in 2015, bagging 11 Tony awards – including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score – as well as the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Thanks to the Disney+ filmed version, fans have been soaking it up for years as witnesses to pages of American history, newly envisaged by creative genius Lin-Manuel Miranda. Book, music and lyrics – the lot!
Inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton, Miranda takes his audience on an unforgettable journey via a work that might not unfold with a precision perfect lens on historical accuracy but rather crosses into a world of semi-fictional theatre.
There exists limitless perspectives from which history’s breadth and complexity can be recorded. So much has radiated from a single point, so much has been ignored and what we are fed is another matter.
What Miranda does so successfully is plant the listener in the midst of turbulent political times of revolution and constitutional debate to not only introduce and celebrate US Founding Father Alexander Hamilton but build bridges and context between his dreams and ours.
This humanity that Miranda brings to Hamilton – and he was flawed just like we all are – is unmistakably palpable and moving.
As a new immigrant searching for a better life in New York in 1776 and the “bastard, orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman,” Hamilton’s drive to make a difference is non-negotiable. It is more than once we hear him crying out, “I am not throwin’ away my shot.”
In his rise to prominence, however, the darkness of his mentor and rival Aaron Burr’s jealousy, the scandal of an extra-marital affair and the death of his son Philip, who stood up for his father’s fight and lost in a duel, erode the path ahead.
When that path reaches its ending, Miranda’s reverberant and reflective music and lyrics of “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” whirls her audience onto the precipice where Hamilton clings onto between life and death and, in so doing, signs off with a luminous, thought-provoking idea of our own mortality and legacy.
With people of all colours inhabiting roles afforded by white privilege as part of this original Broadway production directed by Thomas Kail, one could also ask, “What could’ve been?” The way forward is fairness and equality.
It does help to know a little about American history but there’s no getting lost if you don’t. Miranda gives so much to take away.
Constructed with as many musical contrasts as the seasons that fill the decades the story traverses and accompanied by reams of piquant and persuasive lyrics, the songs of Miranda’s eclectic score – including but not limited to hip hop, jazz, 60s British pop, Broadway tunes, a splash of 40s post war swing, even a tinkle of harpsichord – sparkle in their own right.
Together, they form a mesmerising richly woven whole. And unless you’re living under a rock, there is little chance of not being both ensnared and blown away by the meter and rhythms of rap which Miranda employs like operatic recitative.
Here in Melbourne, every detail is attended to in brilliant form and performed with smashing verve by a large contingent of local artists. Spatially intricate, fast-paced and spun with sequence upon sequence of intoxicating choreography, any distraction down to the blink of the eye could mean missing a priceless moment.
Jason Arrow gives a compellingly nuanced performance and complete sense of the mind-ticking dreamer as Hamilton, starring in a career-changing role giving everything in the tank, including a whopping good singing voice.
As Hamilton’s rival Aaron Burr, Lyndon Watts hurls himself into the role like a pepped up sorcerer with sensational athleticism in both body and voice. It’s purely Watts’ show when he commands The Room Where It Happens in one of the great highlights. And while Watts’ showmanship comes close to upstaging the titular character, dramatic honesty is never compromised when needed.
The two rivals share everything from the cheesiness of Your Obedient Servant in their exchange of letters to two particularly affecting scenes adorned by Act 1’s Dear Theodosia and Act 2’s great tension-building The World Was Wide Enough. The simmering chemistry they portray is enthralling.
Arrow and Watts are surrounded by across-the-board talent, including Brent Ashley Hill’s deliciously sneering and camp King George III. The sweetly singing Tigist Strode imbues Hamilton’s wife Eliza with a determined yet compassionate heart. Akina Edmonds renders Eliza’s sister Angelica with maturity and excellent vocal depth. With Strode and Arrow, Hamilton, Eliza and Angelica might move you to tears with Act 2’s It’s Quiet Uptown.
Victory Ndukwe is a dazzling presence and adaptable meaty vocalist as both Lafayette and Jefferson, Matu Ngaropo is properly commanding as Washington and Marty Alix abounds with stage appeal and sincerity as John Laurens and Hamilton’s son Philip.
From the pit and the keyboard, the spectacle and drama is under expert control by musical director Laura Tipoki who, supported by a small but diverse orchestra, keeps the fluctuating tempi and rhythms meticulous and alive.
The Hamilton hype will continue. Don’t hold back. It’s highly worth diving in to join the many manic fans whose persistent screams emanate through the theatre as one principal appears after the other. I could do without that but, as King George states so invitingly when he sings You’ll Be Back – I reckon he’s utterly and royally right.
Her Majesty’s Theatre, 219 Exhibition Street, Melbourne
Performance: Thursday 24 March 2022
Season continues to 18 September 2022
Information and Bookings: www.hamiltonmusical.com.au
Image: Marty Alix, Jason Arrow, Victory Ndukwe and Shaka Cook – photo by Daniel Boud
Review: Paul Selar