By Jean Lowerison
Everything you’ve heard about “Hamilton” the musical is true.
“Hamilton” is for everyone who thinks U.S. history a bore — and for teachers looking for a way to make it come alive. It’s for those who think musical theater is phony because “people don’t sing conversation” (never mind opera).
“Hamilton” is for adventurous theater buffs who welcome a different approach to telling a story — even for those who don’t think they’d welcome something quite this different.
In short, “Hamilton” is for every American old enough to sit in a theater seat for a few hours without getting antsy and disturbing others. And seeing it just may rearrange a few of your music-appreciation molecules.
“Hamilton” is the story about how the sausage of the original U.S. government was made, told by those who were in “the room where it happened” and contributed to it.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s theatrical phenom landed on Broadway in 2015, took home 11 Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, and changed the concept of the musical forever. Thanks to Broadway San Diego, it has finally arrived in San Diego, where it plays through March 28 at San Diego Civic Theatre.
Oskar Eustis, artistic director of New York’s Public Theater (which hosted “Hamilton’s” pre-Broadway run) likens Miranda to a latter-day Shakespeare. “He does exactly what Shakespeare does,” Eustis said. “He takes the language of the people and heightens it by making it verse.”
Ah, but not just any old kind of verse: hip-hop. Yes, imagine late 18th-century Americans rapping about the great American experiment. It’s downright revolutionary — and makes for utterly engrossing theater.
You’ll meet Caribbean immigrant Alexander Hamilton (Austin Scott), orphaned at 12 and sent to New York, about whom contemporary Aaron Burr (Ryan Vasquez) wonders how this “bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman” grew up to be “a hero and a scholar.”
It may be because Hamilton is ambitious and persistent — as he puts it, “I’m not throwin’ away my shot.” And perhaps also because George Washington (Isaiah Johnson, African American, regal and singing like an angel as the Revolutionary general, father of the new country and its first president) took Hamilton under his political wing.
Meanwhile Aaron Burr, the politician’s politician, has this advice for Hamilton: “Talk less. Smile more. Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” (Sound familiar?) Hamilton and Burr sparred verbally until finally Burr became famous as “the damn fool who shot him” (Hamilton) in a duel.
Another immigrant who figures here is the Marquis de Lafayette (Jordan Donica), who came from France to fight with the revolutionaries. He and Hamilton provoke great applause when they note that “immigrants get the job done.”
Donica also plays Thomas Jefferson, the dandified American who spent several years in Paris as American ambassador to France, resplendent in a magenta frock coat. He is annoyed only by Hamilton.
Along for laughs is England’s King George (Rory O’Malley, reprising his Broadway role), who sings several verses of “You‘ll Be Back,” a jaunty song about his annoyance with those break-away Americans. O’Malley mugs with the best of them while maintaining his cool royal bearing.
Fear not, women are not slighted here, even if — as early feminist Angelica Schuyler (Sabrina Sloan) points out with some annoyance — they are left out of the Declaration of Independence.
Hamilton will marry Angelica’s sister Eliza (Raven Thomas), and they will have eight children. Not so different from today, Hamilton will later both do himself in politically and break her heart with extra-curricular activities.
This show is also spectacular visually, in its energetic, athletic, sometimes even gymnastic choreography (by Andy Blankenbuehler), colorful costumes by Paul Tazewell and especially effective lighting by Howell Binkley.
Conductor Julian Reeves’ mighty band of nine keeps the place rocking with great sounds.
So much could be said about this show. Just know that this delightful show will take you somewhere you’ve never been, and although you may have to scramble to keep up with these actors and their speedy hip-hop patter, it’s a journey very much worth taking (though I’d advise listening to the score a few times before you go).
— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Editor’s note: Hamilton runs through Sunday, Jan. 28. In the print publication, it was listed as Wednesday, March 28. We regret the error.