- Title: Hamilton
- Book, music and lyrics by: Lin-Manuel Miranda
- Director: Thomas Kail
- Actors: Joseph Morales, Jared Dixon, Stephanie Jae Park
- Company: Mirvish Productions
- Venue: Ed Mirvish Theatre
- City: Toronto
- Year: To May 17, 2020
Hamilton has finally landed in Canada – and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2015 hit hip-hop biography of American founding father Alexander Hamilton is as innovative, intellectually dazzling and just plain engrossing a piece of theatre as ever in the production now on at the Ed Mirvish theatre.
And yet, it can’t be denied that the particular way this once-in-a-generation smash has arrived in Toronto – in the form of a tour full of American performers, arriving years after smaller markets south of the border got to see it (Schenectady, even!) – feels like a diss.
Canada’s biggest city is, after all, an international centre for hip hop, home to perhaps the genre’s biggest star, Drake – and a multicultural metropolis full of diverse acting and singing talent that, I guess, will have to buy tickets to the show rather than be showcased in it and have the chance to become stars, the way so many of the once-unknowns in the original Broadway cast did.
If you’ve been living under a rock for the past five years, Hamilton is that rare musical that’s become a true pop-culture phenomenon, its original cast album certified platinum six times, and Miranda, its polymath creator of Puerto Rican descent, catapulted into stardom.
Miranda’s billion-dollar idea was to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton – and, by extension, the birth of the United States – in a way that was itself revolutionary, making America then look and sound like America now.
Latinx, Asian and black actors play founding fathers here – and this casting isn’t colour-blind, but colour-conscious. The point made is that America always relied on “immigrants” to, as one of the show’s most quoted lines goes, “get the job done.” (The casting of African-American actors as slave owners such as Thomas Jefferson has been the subject of more debate – progressive or perverse?)
Aaron Burr (Jared Dixon) – a fascinating fence-sitting figure depicted here as Hamilton’s lifelong political frenemy – helpfully sets the show up by sing-rapping this question about the title character: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a / Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten / Spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalour / Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” (Say it aloud and relish the rhythm of the metamorphosing “o”s.)
We first encounter Hamilton (Joseph Morales) – who sings he’s “just like my country … young, scrappy and hungry” – getting off a ship in New York in 1776. He jumps right into the revolution and his brash intelligence leads him to quickly end up the right-hand man of George Washington (Marcus Choi).
But the War of Independence doesn’t even occupy the whole first act. History keeps whizzing by – and we see Hamilton write the Federalist Papers (there’s a lot of choreographed quill movement in director Thomas Kail’s production), then set up the new country’s financial system as Secretary of the Treasury, then debate Thomas Jefferson (a winking Warren Egypt Franklin) over debt assumption and aid to France.
On paper, the plot may sound like that of a bloated, meandering biopic. But despite being jam-packed with fact, Hamilton never loses narrative momentum because of Miranda’s masterful merging of hip-hop ideas with the musical theatre form. Policy debates are rap battles, complete with mic drops – and each new song samples previous songs. It’s like the show is remixing itself as it goes along.
Hamilton’s personal life is also covered – particularly a love triangle of sorts involving him, his wife Eliza (Stephanie Jae Park) and Eliza’s sister, Angelica (Ta’Rea Campbell). This is where the touring production in Toronto falls a little flat: the chemistry’s just not there. (Later, however, Morales’s Hamilton does really spark with Darilyn Castillo’s sizzling Maria – who wanders into his office in the second act and turns his world upside down.)
Some actors in smaller roles seem to be trying too hard vocally to recreate the sounds of the original Broadway cast, and their portrayals suffer. But the two male leads do absolutely make their parts their own: Morales has a soft, understated voice that may remind of Miranda, who originated the role, but his Hamilton is less heady and more robust, while Dixon is extremely emotionally effective as the indecisive, insecure Burr. His rendition of Wait for It is an absolute showstopper.
You may experience cognitive dissonance watching Miranda’s optimistic, Obama-era take on his country’s origins at a time of rising American authoritarianism; aside from one lyric (“oh-oh / quid pro quo”), however, I didn’t think too much about you-know-who.
I did find the show’s rah-rah take on America’s independence (King George, played by the entertaining Neil Haskell, is a total clown) clashed in a way with the take-the-money-and-run way Hamilton is being presented in Toronto, though. As Miranda’s characters sing: “When are these colonies gonna rise up?”
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