Opening night of “Hamilton” at the renowned Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa had me tossing around words like “sexy” and “patriotic” – two words I never imagined using together in the same sentence, but then again, wasn’t that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s intended format for “Hamilton” all along? To push boundaries and create the unexpected; something revolutionary?
The “rules” for Broadway shows were laid out long before Miranda began developing “Hamilton.” Clearly, Miranda studied them carefully just so he could break each and every one of them, in all the right ways.
The impact of his revolutionary musical on Broadway not only flipped perceptions of how theater could be done, but went so far as to get people thinking differently about history, and spark tough conversations surrounding culture and politics, which in turn contributed to the show’s profound status of social importance.
Inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography, this bad boy of Broadway created a totally original musical and thoroughly riveting story of our country’s history based on the extraordinary life and ambitions of our founding father, Alexander Hamilton. Set at the start of the American Revolution, and heavily influenced by a healthy dose of hip-hop, Miranda’s storytelling style transcends the given timeline with a modern-day American feel that resonates with today’s culture. Rap and hip-hop beats are rooted throughout the score with songs that feature feel-good soul, contemporary R&B, bits of blues, melodic jazz, and a few classic Broadway showstoppers sprinkled in.
The genius in making these stylistic choices to score music using modern hip-hop was pivotal for transforming American history, the story of our founding fathers, and actual historical figures into something that is now completely relatable and commands attention.
Who knew constitutional disputes we brushed over in high school between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton could suddenly become thrilling debates if only dramatized into quick-witted rap battles! I caught myself leaning forward in my seat every time those two went toe-to-toe.
Paris Nix gave an exciting portrayal of Lafayette, and his Jefferson truly entertained. Both of his roles got me all fired up! I was also pleasantly surprised by Jared Howelton’s transformative performance, going from the obnoxiously charming John Laurens in Act One, to a very believable nine-year-old Philip Hamilton trying to spit out rhymes like his daddy in Act Two. As this character quickly aged, Howelton matched his character’s emotional maturity beautifully. And then there was King George, sauntering onstage in all his glory, with a hilariously fantastic performance of “You’ll Be Back” by Rick Negron. He had the audience laughing to tears. Bravo Rick Negron.
Chock full of complex characters, the narrative of “Hamilton” is richly layered in political drama, passionate patriotism, thrilling battles, love triangles, comical entertainment, and tragic heartbreak. Also, who doesn’t love a true underdog story ending in a remarkable legacy that helped shape America? And yet, the obvious talent and skill required to properly portray the complexities of Alexander Hamilton seemed effortless for DeAundre Woods, who had very big shoes to fill after Miranda. Woods springs to life with his hard hitting rap, soothes our ears when landing dynamic notes with velvety softness, and when his voice breaks in “Hurricane,” our hearts break with it. Woods brought something different to the role of Hamilton, yet his acting displayed the same emotional depth you’ve come to know and love from Miranda.
Sharing the stage as his love interest and wife, Eliza was played by Morgan Anita Wood. To put it plainly, she nailed it as the likable female lead. The innocent glow in her smile, coupled with her rich harmonic vocals during “The Schulyer Sisters” hooked me right in. She made me feel giddy as she fell in love, her pain of betrayal during “Burn,” loss from her son’s death, and the courage, strength and pride she had mustered to tell Hamilton’s story as she sang the “Fanale.” Marja Harmon, who played Angelica, was no shrinking violet next to Wood. Harmon was a vocal powerhouse, bellowing with fireworks in “Satisfied.” Also of note was Rebecca Covington’s delightful vocals as Maria Reynolds.
“Hamilton” is known for discovering talent outside the box, and this ensemble of actors truly has astounding voices. When I close my eyes, I can still hear harmonic melodies bravely singing expressions of freedom, building up to the anticipated repeated call to, “Rise Up!” I remember fist-pumping patriotism pulsed through my veins as the cast chanted on stage, “Here Comes the General!” just before Washington, played by Darnell Abraham, made his grand entrance. His booming baritone voice rattled me to my core. Last but not least, Donald Webber, Jr. performed with an impressive air of boastful pride, worthy of the antagonist we all love to hate. His portrayal of Aaron Burr carried through with venomous brilliance in “Wait for It.”
Unphased by a completely new ensemble of actors, the audience at Orange County’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts accepted this talented cast with open arms. I should also mention that what I love about Orange County is they do theater right by embracing the full experience. Those in attendance know to dress for the occasion and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts encourages a respectable theater elegance. The shows are top notch, the employees are kind and helpful, and there is mutual respect among the patrons. I believe this all adds to an immersive theater experience.
Since the premiere seven years ago, “Hamilton” has won 11 Tony Awards, a Grammy Award, and an uncontested Pulitzer Prize. “Hamilton” upholds its reputation as the must-see groundbreaking musical, and I was thrilled when given an opportunity to see it live for my first time on opening night with my trusted musical aficionado friend by my side. A show with such accolades undoubtedly sets unreasonable expectations, but those reservations quickly dispersed during the opening number “Alexander Hamilton.” Wall to wall, the theater was filled with patrons restoring their faith in “Hamilton’s” live show and a few newbies sprinkled here and there.
As the lights dimmed and the music swelled, we became acutely aware our section was specifically filled by devout fans who had memorized every rhyme to every lyric, as the excited row behind us did little to disguise the volume of their voices. And while these actors may interpret a role or adapt vocal stylings differently than the original cast, they’ve made these roles their own and delivered powerful performances that really drove the integrity of the story home in ways that wowed us all. By the final bow, even the newbies were pledging allegiance to becoming “Hamilfans.”
This one lived up to the hype. Go see Hamilton, it really is a must see event.
Performances of “Hamilton – An American Musical” continue at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa through October 16th.