REVIEWER RATING: ★★★★★
Without a doubt, Hamilton is the most anticipated musical theatre production to arrive in Australia in recent years.
Inspired by a book written by bestselling and award-winning American writer Ron Chernow about Alexander Hamilton, one of the United States’ (formerly) least celebrated Founding Fathers, Lin-Manuel Miranda conceived of a dramatisation of his story underscored by hip hop. Thirteen years later, the resulting work is a global phenomenon. Hamilton has picked up 11 Tony® Awards including Best Musical, a further seven Olivier Awards including Best New Musical, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a Grammy Award for its cast recording, and a host of other prestigious prizes.
Since it was announced in May 2019 that Hamilton would make its Asia Pacific premiere in Sydney, local musical theatre fans have eagerly awaited the arrival of the highly lauded musical. Now, as the Harbour City slowly emerges from the COVID-19 crisis, the show has opened at the Sydney Lyric Theatre.
With book, music and lyrics, by Miranda (who had already earned four Tony Awards for In the Heights in 2008), Hamilton tells the story of the native West Indian (played in Sydney by Jason Arrow), who arrived in the then- ‘United Colonies’ in the early 1770s and studied at New York’s Kings College. He befriended three men who shared his passion to see the American colonies become independent: John Laurens (Marty Alix), Marquis de Lafayette (Victory Ndukwe) and Hercules Mulligan (Shaka Cook).
After joining the Continental Army, Hamilton became the right-hand man of General George Washington (Matu Ngaropo) in the American Revolutionary War, ultimately playing a pivotal role in the defeat of the British. As the new United States of America began to take shape, Hamilton became the first secretary of the Treasury and was the chief architect of the new republic’s financial system.
In 1804, following a duel with a bitter long-term rival, Aaron Burr (Lyndon Watts), a single gunshot ended Hamilton’s life. Over 200 years later, Miranda’s work pays homage to a US Founding Father far less renowned that his contemporaries such as Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
As well as highlighting his role in the American Revolutionary War and the hard-fought political battles in which he engaged upon the birth of the US, the musical backgrounds his marriage to Eliza Schuyler (Chloé Zuel) of the prosperous Schuyler family, his complex relationship with her sister, Angelica (Akina Edmonds), and his affair with Maria Reynolds (Elandrah Eramiha), which was financially exploited by Reynolds’s husband, James (Tainga Savage). There’s also his unintentional role in the death of his son, Philip, that comes into focus here. Despite his obvious intellectual acumen and tremendous accomplishments, Hamilton was far from a perfect man.
But it’s precisely that combination of triumph, tragedy and scandal that makes Hamilton’s story so apropos for a musical theatre production. What Miranda has done is extraordinary, packing decades of detailed story into a piece clocking in at just under three hours, accompanying it with a delightful mix of hip hop, jazz, R&B and some more traditional Broadway fare. Director Thomas Kail has proceedings moving along at an exhilarating pace, but also makes effective use of moments of stillness.
When he was bringing this piece to the stage, Miranda wanted to ensure that the story of America “then” was “told by America now”, meaning that the overseas companies of Hamilton are among the most racially diverse companies on stages anywhere.
Fortunately, that diversity is reflected, too, in Hamilton’s Sydney cast, made up predominantly of performers of colour from Australia and New Zealand. It is exciting to see such an eclectic mix of talented individuals bringing to life this contemporary staging of a tale of dead white American men.
Taking on the title role, Arrow’s Hamilton is aptly ardent and enterprising, letting nothing stand in the way of his efforts to make the most of his shot. He really comes into his own particularly in the second act, when Hamilton must begin to take stock of his relentless pursuit of political, intellectual and social success. His enunciation of each syllable in Miranda’s wordy and fast-paced lyrics is impressive, as is the conviction in his delivery. It’s always believable.
A standout of this production is Watts, as Hamilton’s long-time adversary, himself determined to earn a place in history. Watts may be the show’s antagonist, but his Burr is far from a one-dimensional stage villain. He’s sympathetic in portraying a man with his own designs on making his mark on the newly minted United States, but who repeatedly falls short probably because, as Hamilton argues, he stands “for nothing”. Watts is strong in his delivery of challenging numbers, giving us two highlights in the form of Act I’s ‘Wait for it’ and Act II’s ‘The room where it happens’, and is lithe on his feet, moving across the space with such elegance, and has no trouble commanding the stage.
But Hamilton is very much an ensemble piece and relies on the strength of a large group of key performers. Fortunately, all principal performers here are able to deliver. Ngaropo’s Washington has great presence and innate leadership; Alix succeeds both as Laurens, fiercely loyal to Hamilton and intent on ending slavery, and Philip Hamilton, Hamilton’s eldest son who goes to an early grave defending his father’s honour; Ndukwe has the tough task of taking on both Lafayette, the French military officer, and Jefferson, the first Secretary of State, but he comes through in both guises, particularly making his mark as the colourful and charismatic Jefferson; and Cook gives a standout performance as soldier Hercules Mulligan and James Madison.
As Hamilton’s tremendously loyal wife, Zuel proves herself an asset to this company. She is especially memorable in Act II in her portrayal of a woman coming to terms with her husband’s betrayal and dealing with the loss of a child. There’s such a sincerity to the anguish her Eliza displays, and her performance of the powerful ballad ‘Burn’ leaves its mark. There’s ultimately also a strength and resilience to Eliza that Zuel conveys as the show is approaching its final seconds. As Eliza’s sister, Angelica, Edmons is wonderful, ideally cast as the smart and sharp older sister who puts Eliza’s happiness before her own. And while given less of an opportunity to shine, Eramiha is a crucial player and convinces as both the youngest Schuyler sister and the mistreated Maria Reynolds.
And then there’s King George III, played here by Brent Hill, who is unsurprisingly stellar as the moaning monarch watching from afar, as colonists turn their backs on the old country.
Miranda’s excellent score is skilfully performed by an 11-piece orchestra, led by Music Director Laura Tipoki, and overall, the sound design ensures the wordy lyrics of each song can be heard over the mix. Meanwhile, Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography is outstanding, marrying sharp and precise gesture with beautiful balletic moments. Howell Binkley’s lighting helps to further elevate the energy of the piece and to underline certain beats in the music effectively. It all takes place on David Korins’s remarkable set, which comprises brick walls, wooden scaffolding and coiled ropes, replicating old sailing ships of the time and alluding to the fact the show is centred on builders – the builders of a modern republic.
There is so much about Hamilton to appreciate; aspects of the show that make it a musical unlike anything else that is currently out there. The truth of the matter is that Hamilton is an experience you must have for yourself. Don’t throw away your shot!
Photo credit: Daniel Boud
For more information, including on how to purchase tickets, visit hamiltonmusical.com.au.