The Theatreguide.London Review
Victoria Palace Theatre December 2017 -
Could Hamilton possibly be as good as all the hype and all the awards on Broadway said it was? In a word, yes.
Lin-Manuel Miranda's – and yes, it is a one-man job, book music and lyrics – musical is innovative, original, musically inventive, lyrically clever, dramatically engrossing and as long a list of positive adjectives as you can come up with.
It's also immensely entertaining and given by director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler a production fully matching Miranda's raw material in invention and excitement.
You don't have to know much or even care much about America's early days – the history lesson is painlessly incorporated into the show – to get caught up in the story of Alexander Hamilton, the illegitimate mixed-race orphan immigrant who rose to become probably the greatest of the Founding Fathers who was never President.
Miranda presents him as brash, ambitious, workaholic, a brilliant administrator (as General George Washington's secretary he kept the army going on no money; as President Washington's Treasury Secretary he got the new country on a sound fiscal footing), and sometimes too outspoken and unbending for his own political good.
He made strong allies and enemies, sometimes the same people at different moments, and was eventually killed by one of them, Aaron Burr, in a duel over a relatively trivial matter.
So much for history. What about the show?
Lin-Manuel Miranda puts most of the sung-through text into the rhymes and rhythms of rap and hip-hop. And for almost the first time in the thirty-odd years since rap appeared, he convinces me that reciting rhymed couplets over music is an art form with rich potential. (Eminem had his moments, and you can hear occasional echoes of his style here)
Miranda uses his rhymed couplets inventively, frequently surprising and delighting with unexpected rhymes, and escaping any danger of monotony by breaking them up.
Couplets are as likely to be split among speakers as finished by the one who started, either in a call-and-response way or by having someone on the other side of the stage hijack the couplet to start a new conversation.
Miranda is also wise enough to see that even with his variations the form can't be sustained indefinitely, and the score is sprinkled with more conventionally-structured melodic songs, like the lovely lullaby Hamilton and Burr sing simultaneously to their babies.
Elsewhere the standard elements of the Broadway musical, from the dramatic monologue to the big production number, are tweaked or re-invented by writer, director and choreographer.
A sequence like The Room Where It Happens, in which Aaron Burr expresses his frustration at being left out of an important political meeting, pushes the plot forward, offers insights into all the characters involved, builds musically and dramatically and utilises the depth and width of the stage excitingly.
You realise as you watch it that you have seen scenes generically like this in other musicals but that the formula is being re-invented before your eyes.
Director Kail and choreographer Blankenbuehler keep everybody moving – these characters are all driven by the nervous energy of making history and can't stand still – and fill the stage with almost constant peripheral action.
A dancing chorus seems sometimes to be following its own internal rhythms, now reflecting or supporting the main actors, now intersecting with them while going their own way, now just off in a corner moving on their own.
As Hamilton, Jamael Westman strides through the show, taller than almost everyone else, dominating every scene with the force of his personality. The script doesn't offer Hamilton too many opportunities to show a softer or vulnerable side, but Westman grabs all of them, sensitively factoring those qualities into his characterisation.
Giles Terera makes a formidable Aaron Burr, all the more so by resisting any temptation to make him a Panto villain, and Rachelle Ann Go as Hamilton's wife reminds us that the Founding Mothers were made of steel as well as comforting softness.
Obioma Ugoala is a strong presence as Washington, Jason Pennycooke doubles as a boyish Lafayette and a wily Jefferson, and Michael Jibson repeatedly stops the show as a Panto-comic King George.
As good as everyone is, the real draws of Hamilton are the excitingly form-stretching music and lyrics and the matchingly inventive staging. It really is as good as they say.
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