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- Title: Hamilton
- Book, Music and Lyrics by: Lin-Manuel Miranda
- Director: Thomas Kail
- Choreographer: Andy Blankenbuehler
- Actors: Deaundre′ Woods, Morgan Anita Wood, Donald Webber Jr., Marja Harmon, Darnell Abraham, Paris Nix, Brandon Louis Armstrong, Andy Tofa
- Company: Mirvish Productions / And Peggy
- Venue: Princess of Wales Theatre
- City: Toronto
- Year: To Aug 20, 2023
Wait for It. It’s a song sung by a stoic Aaron Burr in the first act of Hamilton. And it’s also what Toronto audiences have had to do for three years, after the COVID-19 pandemic cut short the game-changing musical’s Canadian-premiere run.
Since then, Hamilton has toured to other Canadian cities, including Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa – and of course, it continues to play on Broadway and in London’s West End. But if you’re a Torontonian who didn’t catch it before the lockdown and couldn’t travel, its return engagement, which officially opened Thursday, has felt like a long time coming.
Was the wait worth it? Hell yeah.
Even though, since its 2015 New York debut, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical bio of American founding father Alexander Hamilton has gone from thrillingly original to well-established. (Among its awards: 11 Tonys, seven Oliviers, two Emmys, a Grammy and the Pulitzer Prize.) Even though audiences can now rap/sing its songs by heart – its cast album is the all-time bestseller in that category. Even though many have already seen the filmed version, which was a streaming sensation on Disney+ in the first summer of the pandemic.
The production now onstage at the Princess of Wales Theatre reaffirms why Hamilton is still such an exhilarating experience that boldly pushes the parameters of musical theatre, in terms of music, content and the artists who create and present it.
As fans know, the show has three North American touring companies, all named after members of Hamilton’s family. Back in 2020, Toronto saw the “Philip” company. This time, we have “And Peggy,” a well-oiled troupe who put over the musical with non-stop brio, the cast boasting some standout performances and one that’s simply phenomenal.
Miranda’s concept, although by now familiar, still feels as wildly ambitious as the show’s eponymous hero: A democratic retelling of the founding of America by its historically marginalized people – a group of Black, Latinx and Asian artists – driven by a scintillating, hip-hop-infused score. The way it packs in so much history, while keeping us engaged with the human stories at its heart, makes other musicals look like slackers.
The main human story, of course, is that of Alex, the “young, scrappy and hungry” orphan from the West Indies, who arrives in 1770s New York to seek his fortune with just a “top-notch brain” and a razor-sharp quill. Miranda makes him the quintessential immigrant upon which the American dream is founded.
At college, Alex meets Aaron Burr and fellow radicals agitating for American independence from Great Britain. Thanks to his way with words, he winds up as George Washington’s right-hand man during the Revolutionary War. In a pause between military campaigns, he meets and marries Eliza, one of the daughters of wealthy Philip Schuyler. The war won, he becomes the Secretary of the Treasury in the first U.S. government, co-authors the majority of the Federalist Papers to promote the new Constitution, and starts a family.
All those achievements are in the first act. Life gets messier in Act 2, when Hamilton becomes involved in backroom deal-cutting and a career-damaging extramarital affair. The latter also leads to a private tragedy that foreshadows his own fate.
Throughout, his Icarus-like rise is viewed by his friend-turned-foe Burr, the self-described “damn fool” who ultimately brought him to earth with a pistol shot.
Miranda’s score, orchestrated by Alex Lacamoire, is as witty and exciting as ever, playfully peppered with references to hip-hop and R&B classics – those by Biggie Smalls, Beyoncé and Jay-Z and Alicia Keys being just the most obvious. Then there are the allusions that cater to musical-theatre geeks, as well as the pervading influence of Les Misérables, that other show about a people’s revolution.
But Les Mis was never so heady. The inspiration of having wordsmith Hamilton and his political brethren declaim and debate in rapid-fire rap is genius. At the same time, it gives precedence to the intellectual underpinnings of the American Revolution, with the war as mostly backdrop.
As a young Alex, Deaundre′ Woods lacks the live-wire charisma that should immediately grab our attention, but he grows into the role, making for an affecting mature Hamilton. Donald Webber Jr. as Burr, however, is complex and compelling from the get-go, with a smooth, quiet demeanour that hides a conflicting tangle of envy and admiration, frustration and respect. A Hamilton veteran, Webber was Burr to Miranda’s Alex for the show’s Puerto Rican benefit engagement back in 2019; it’s a part he clearly plays with aplomb.
The blow-you-away performance, however, comes from Morgan Anita Wood as Eliza, Hamilton’s wife. Right from her swoony ballad Helpless, in which she glows with palpable infatuation after meeting Alex at a winter ball, through to her later anger, devastation and, ultimately, sorrowful triumph, she’s a vocal and physical presence of such vibrant emotion that it’s almost overwhelming. We can only conclude that her husband must have a will of steel to resist her entreaties that he spend less time politicking and more time at home.
There are a pair of delightful comic portrayals by Paris Nix and Manuel Stark Santos. Nix lays on the charm and smarm as a grandstanding Thomas Jefferson, back from France to join Washington’s cabinet. Santos – subbing for Rick Negron at Thursday’s performance – almost turns his cameos as King George III into showstoppers, playing the smug British monarch like an effete Daniel Day Lewis and giving him a sly appeal.
The other principal actors in the 21-member onstage ensemble turn in rock-solid performances. They include Darnell Abraham as a paternal Washington; Brandon Louis Armstrong (another Hamilton vet) as a jovial Hercules Mulligan and crafty James Madison; and Marja Harmon as Angelica, the cerebral Schuyler sister whose unrequited love for Alex is expressed in the bittersweet Satisfied.
Watching director Thomas Kail’s whirlwind staging – on David Korins’s scaffolds-and-turntable set – and Andy Blankenbuehler’s inventive urban-meets-Broadway choreography, you’re reminded again of how perfectly they complement the score. On a technical level, however, conductor David Atkinson’s mighty orchestra sometimes overwhelms the singers – and this is one show where, familiar or not, you want to hear every lyric.
Such minor issues don’t detract from the show’s overall power and purpose. Eight years since its debut, Hamilton may no longer offer the thrill of the new, but it now provides the pleasures of the enduring.