High Five for the 10 Man
Review: "Hamilton'' at the Dr. Phillips Center soars with its cast, sets and operatic-like story of the Founding Father.
Joseph Morales (front) leads the cast of "Hamilton."
Top 10 lists have been a thing ever since Moses came down from the mountaintop with his list of do’s and don’ts.
They are a particular temptation for journalists, and five will get you 10 that you’ve already seen a “Top 10” list about Hamilton counting down somebody’s 10 favorite rap references or 10 must-know historical facts. After all, the show’s title character has his kisser on the 10-dollar bill. So who can resist? Not me. But I’ve already done one Top 10 Hamilton list as a preview to the show, which opened in Orlando at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts for a three-week run that ends—wouldn’t you know it—February 10.
This time around, I’m ignoring all the prompts or at least compromising with them and cutting my list in half: Here’s a review in the form of my Top 5 Hamilton observations.
One: If you are lucky enough to have tickets to the show, don’t expect to understand every single thing you hear. To borrow a line from another current musical: Let it go. This sung-through, quasi-operatic romance, history lesson, character study and morality tale is dense with historical details and multi-layered rap references and break beats. It’s a show, not a history lesson. Enjoy the pace, take in the distinct accelerated metabolism of it. None of this will be on your final exam. You’re not going to catch everything, and if you try you will ruin it for yourself.
Two: Ordinarily, the sets of touring productions are an abbreviated version of those on Broadway to cut down on costs. They didn’t do that with either of the two Hamilton productions that are currently touring the country, so the set you see at Dr. Phillips is an exact duplicate, and it’s an expansive wonder of rough-hewn beams and weathered masonry with a turntable at its center. It had to be a wide-open, fluid space to accommodate the sweep of events, which begins with Alexander Hamilton as an orphan in the Caribbean and follows his life story as a “Founding Father without a father who went a lot farther” by traveling to New York as a teenager, where he helped to create a country.
Three: Casting is especially critical in Hamilton since the core concept of its creator, lyricist, playwright and original star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was to use multiple ethnicities to portray its characters. What’s just as important is to find actors who can establish a balance between the two pivotal characters: Hamilton himself, played in this production by Joseph Morales, and the friend who becomes his enemy, Aaron Burr, played by Nik Walker. Morales brings a stocky underdog grace to the role that makes it easy to identify with him as he stands up to Walker, who towers over him with a simmering craftiness that builds nicely over the course of the show.
Four: The symmetry in Hamilton also involves a counterpoint between the sexes: Hamilton has his crew in the form of the Marquis de Lafayette, played by Kyle Scatliffe, who also portrays a flouncing Thomas Jefferson, and Hercules Mulligan, played by Fergie Philippe, who also plays James Madison. Both of those supporting players wisely convey character and humor with body language more than dialogue. That sets up a poignant contrast in the graceful vocalizing supplied by Hamilton’s wife, Eliza (Shoba Narayan until Feb. 5, when Erin Clemons will assume the role) has her companions in her sisters, Angelica (Ta’Rea Campbell) and Peggy (Nyla Sostre). The trio, in this case, sound as though they’ve been singing together for years.
Five: Hamilton has often been compared to—actually, contrasted with—1776, the Musical, which took a much more traditional approach to the national origin story, focused on John Adams, and restricted itself to his efforts to get his colleagues to sign the Declaration of Independence. Here’s the difference: 1776 was a time capsule, presenting the struggle to create a nation as a done deal. This vibrant, updated rendering of that struggle—“The story of America then as told by America now,” as Miranda puts it—sent me out the door and into the real world with a to be continued thought bubble hovering over my head.