Hamilton still entertains, but loses urgency with passage of time | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Hamilton still entertains, but loses urgency with passage of time

click to enlarge Hamilton - PHOTO: JOAN MARCUS
Photo: Joan Marcus
Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda’s retelling of the life and times of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton through rap, remains as exuberant and entertaining in its return to the Benedum Theater as ever. The show’s sung-through score mixes rhythmic and lyrical allusions to hip-hop greats such as The Notorious BIG, Eminem, DMX, Jay-Z, and Nas with soaring musical theater melodies and masterful performers.

The show is less urgent and relevant, however, than it was in its 2015 premiere or even the national tour’s last visit to Pittsburgh in early 2019. Hamilton, as a retelling of the United States’ origin, leans heavily on patriotic mythologies about hard work ensuring success, American meritocracy, and the virtues of the nation’s most prominent historical figures that ring hollow two years and countless federal government failures into a pandemic.

Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, played by Pierre Jean Gonzalez, and his rise to significance by virtue of his ambition, vision, intellect, and showmanship. The story begins in 1776 in Philadelphia, where Hamilton meets his future rival, Aaron Burr, played in this production by Jared Dixon. Although tempered by his patience, Dixon understands that Burr’s ambition burns as brightly as Hamilton’s, and simmers with intensity as the show’s narrator.

In Philadelphia, Hamilton connects with revolutionary comrades John Laurens (Elijah Malcomb), Hercules Mulligan (Desmond Sean Ellington), and Marquis de Lafayette (Warren Egypt Franklin) who go on to fight and win the Revolutionary War serving under George Washington, driven, in this production, by Marcus Choi’s righteous fury and compassion.

(In the second act, Ellington and Franklin reappear as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, respectively, who seek to undermine Hamilton, now the Treasury Secretary to Washington’s president, in his plan to secure his legacy by establishing a national bank.)

The emotional heart of the show concerns relationships between and among Hamilton and two women, Eliza and Angelica Schuyler, played by Stephanie Jae Park and Ta’Rea Campbell, who both shine despite their characters having been saddled with the unfair burden of generating the emotional stakes of the entire show with very little character development to help them.

Visually, Hamilton has few imposing set pieces, a choice that supports the show’s fluid relationship to time and place. Director Thomas Kail’s staging facilitates the flow of the musical’s epic plot, which spans decades and includes several battle scenes, often through judicious use of a turntable to orchestrate clockwise and counterclockwise movement. David Korins’ dynamic but understated wood scaffolding set grounds the show in a palette of warm, neutral colors. Paul Tazewell’s simple, mostly off-white costumes complement the set and amplify the contrast of light designer Howell Binkley’s cool blues and purples, which underscore emotional moments.

Hamilton received near-universal acclaim and felt optimistic and urgent at its 2015 opening, when it was heralded as a Broadway game changer. Miranda’s choice to bring a hip-hop sensibility to musical theater was a fresh use of hip hop’s epic storytelling tradition to tell an American story through the combination of two uniquely American genres. Hamilton’s representational politics, the creative team’s decision to cast actors of color to play the white Founding Fathers, felt powerful at a time when it seemed like antiracism had just won a significant, if symbolic, victory. Miranda’s earnestness was cute instead of cringe.

A lot has changed since then. Now that the novelty and hype have worn down and we find ourselves in a very different political moment, Hamilton looks more and more like an artifact of the Obama era that is more optimistic about the future and uncompromisingly adamant about the virtue of the United States than probably any piece of popular culture made since.

Seen from a political moment with what I hope is a deeper understanding of the centrality of anti-Black racism in American history and culture,Hamilton’s representational politics are especially reminiscent of the Obama era, that is to say, mostly symbolic and ultimately unchallenging of the status quo. Since it opened off-Broadway in 2015, Hamilton has showcased the brilliance of hundreds of performers of color. But the story of the United States’ founding, and, by extension, the story of Hamilton, is about wealthy white men creating a country specifically for white men. Refashioning those powerful white men as characters played by young, attractive people of color has the effect of almost entirely removing whiteness from the story of the birth of the American government. Yet, investment in white supremacy is all over our country’s founding documents and the founders themselves. I’m really not a stickler about historical accuracy in musical theater, but this is where I draw the line.

For a piece of art so interested in the values and motivations of the men who started this country, a show that offers the Framers’ values deep consideration as a proxy for the values of the country they created, by leaving out white racial dominance, Hamilton fundamentally misrepresents them.
Hamilton. Continues through Sun., March 13. Benedum Center. 237 Seventh Street, Downtown. hamilton.trustarts.org

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