IT IS JUST AS WONDERFUL AS THEY SAID IT WAS.
It could have been just a novelty: the biography of a half-forgotten Founding Father of the USA, an orphaned immigrant who rose to be George Washington’s right-hand man; a revolutionary hero and architect of modern American politics. With an all-black cast, and mainly interpreted in hip-hop and rap. It sounds like the ultimate fringe oddity. Instead, after a sellout off-Broadway, it became is an almost instant legend of the stage thanks to Broadway audiences battling for tickets, the heartily applauding Obamas and a rattled, disapproving Trump.
Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote it – book, lyrics, music – after finding out about Alexander Hamilton from a biography, and starred in it himself on Broadway. From there Thomas Kail directs, Andy Blankenbuehler choreographs , and now a British cast sails into the big refurbished theatre with high expectations foaming around it.
It fulfils every one. Sometimes hype is entirely justified. This is marvellous: different, daring, joyful and intelligent, a show for today and not only for America. It is rolling, roistering, leaping political and personal saga, and performed superbly (chap next to me says the cast are actually better than the Broadway one he saw, in diction and musicality). The joy is that if fits: grom the first moment when in tailcoat and tight breeches Giles Terera strides on as Aaron Burr (the narrator- rival who eventually shot Hamilton), you realize that actually the satirical, witty energy of hip-hop rhythms happens to be a perfect fit for 18th century politics. It catches the quality of defiant, Enlightenment demand for independence ; “I may not live to see the glory, but I’m glad to join the fight!”. So when King George III (a very funny, furious, heavily ermined and crowned Michael Jibson) comes on to sing furiously in a parodic Lloyd-Webbery style “You’ll be back! Just you see! YOu’ll remember you belong to me!”, excoriating the sheer nerve of these people, the contrast is perfect.
That this should come just as America’s Trump moment was about to happen is a kind of blessing. Not just because it endorses diverse popular energy (“Immigrants – we get things done!” sings Jason Pennycooke’s Lafayette) but because it is so fly, so closely observant, about the human qualities that make politics work. Burr, initially a friend of the energetic, idealistic Hamilton, warns him “Talk less, smile more”, but Hamilton barges through, gets things done. Our Hamilton is Jamael Westman, a newcomer not long from Rada but with a virile, striding stage presence, towering over many of the others, handling the fast-moving text with assurance and brio and, as his family story builds and darkens towards the second half, he has real emotional heft. The rap-duels between him and the entertainingly camp purple-velvet Jefferson (Pennycooke again) zing with real political energy; it is not hard to see why he entranced both the Schuyler sisters (Rachel John as Angelica and Rachelle Ann Go as his wife Eliza).
The dancing is explosive, around an unfussy set of wooden steps and gantries, and the rhyming dazzles (gotta love the rappy rhymes – “How does a ragtag army in need of a shower / Defeat a superpower?” or ‘Do you haveta assume / Your’e the smartest in the room?”) But there are changes of pace into lyrical, bluesy numbers; especially for the women, who are glorious singers, but also profoundly movingly when the two rival principals each have newborn children and feel the changing, deepening responsibility. The family tragedy of Hamilton’s son is wrenching.
Every change of mood is perfect: domestic dissolution after a disastrous liaison and political overwork, then a snapped “Can we get back to the politics?” with changes of alliance. Great numbers rattle through: Burr’s furious wish to be “in the room where it happens” says it for all sidelined suspicious politicians, and one treasures the moment when Hamilton recklessly publishes a pamphlet admitting his sex scandal in order to clear himself of embezzlement, whereon furious George III joins the dance of triumph of Jefferson and his rivals singing “You’ll never be President now”. Oh, the echoes…
It’s exciting, it’s redemptive, it’s human and serious and funny. It’s wonderful. Believe the hype.
http://www.victoriapalacetheatre.co.uk to 30 june