by MIKE CHAIKEN
There is no doubt that “Hamilton” has become a pop culture brand name.
The stage musical is a phenomenon— the stage show equivalent of Beatlemania or Taylor Swift-Mania. “Hamilton” generates a buzz far beyond the typical group of theater aficionados.
And at The Bushnell on Dec. 12, the sophomore night of its run in Hartford, “Hamilton” was the social event of the month, maybe even the year. The lobby was packed with guests waiting for the theater doors to open so they could find their seats. Inside, the crowds were so heavy, the ushers were overwhelmed with audience members needing guidance to their seats. Many in attendance appeared to be newcomers to The Bushnell.
If you needed further evidence of “Hamilton’s” special place in pop culture and theater at this moment, you only needed to be present for the moment when the houselights dimmed. Typically, this moment at a stage show is greeted with a hush for silence. At “Hamilton,” when the house lights went down, there was a roar akin to the arrival of the pop icon of the moment inside your favorite arena.
This kind of excitement for a stage show is a double-edge sword. When a piece of art is this phenomenally popular, a show has the advantage of attracting the best of the best in performers. Thus, the result is a superlative evening out for the audience.
But, when a show like “Hamilton” creates such an outsized buzz, the pressure is on to prove that the hype is deserved. It risks disappointing an audience expecting a performance that blows the competition away.
I was relieved to discover by the end of the night that the buzz over Hamilton” is well-deserved. And I was delighted to witness some of the best performances I’ve ever seen in a Broadway show road tour.
The story crafted Lin-Manuel Miranda follows the life of Alexander Hamilton, the founding father of America who helped the post-colonial United States find financial stability. In doing so, Hamilton helped hold the fractured and fledgling Republic together.
The show has a large– really large cast— for a road tour. But whether it was the leads, supporting performers, dancers, or chorus, everyone was superb.
“Hamilton” is not an easy piece to perform. Miranda and his creative team have constructed many, many moving parts in the show. They all must mesh perfectly or the whole shebang falls apart. And the players were all spot on.
With so many performing parts, energy also is key. Again, if the energy flags, the excitement dissipates. Without the zip, you’re essentially watching a rehearsal inside a studio rather than a “Performance” with a capital P. And the energy, from beginning to end was palpable. It consistently grabbed your attention.
The show thrives on its leads, Austin Scott, who play the title character, and Josh Tower as Aaron Burr, the tale’s narrator and Hamilton’s friend than foe.
Hamilton is a complex character in this tale. In many ways, he is despicable; and in many ways, he is admirable. He is ambitious to a fault. But he is hamstrung by a vulnerability due to his status as a man born as a penniless orphan and an immigrant to the new nation.
Yet, despite Hamilton’s flaws, Scott finds his redeeming qualities. His nuanced performance allows the audience to like— and even root— for Hamilton.
Tower is able to take a character that easily could have been relegated in the script to villainy. Instead, Tower is able to convey the eventual U.S. senator as heroic at times and clever to a fault, who is held back by his jealousy and his inferiority complex.
Other performers on this tour were also superb.
Paul Oakley Stovall, as George Washington was able to invoke the sensitive and fatherly qualities of the father of our nation. His vocal performances were commanding.
Bryson Bruce as Thomas Jefferson injected an already energetic performance with an extra dose of zip. His character invoked memories of the colorful Flavy Flav from rap group Public Enemy, as well as lively comedians Kevin Hart and Chris Tucker. Bruce played the author of the Declaration of Independence as a bit a dandy, but still a formidable foe to the machinations of both Hamilton and Burr.
Of the female performers, Hannah Cruz as Hamilton’s wife Eliza provided the necessary emotional core to the tale. She is a victim to Hamilton’s ambitions as she is left behind, eventually betrayed by her husband. However, in the end, she takes on the role of hero as she overcomes the hurt inflicted by her late husband and becomes his advocate once again.
Her performance on the song, “Burn” was touching, and it provided insight into what she endured in her marriage to her ambitious husband.
And Peter Matthew Smith, as King George, injected the show with lively comic relief.
The show was aided immensely by an orchestra that provided the music with an extra oomph. Conductor Andre Cerullo needs to be saluted for that extra bit of spice to the “Hamilton” concoction.
Is the incessant hype surrounding “Hamilton” deserved?
After seeing the road tour at The Bushnell in Hartford, I can say the answer is an unequivocal yes.
I give “Hamilton” four out of four stars.
“Hamilton” continues at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford through Sunday, Dec. 30. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 1 and 7 p.m.
For more information about availability of tickets to this sold out run, visit Bushnell.org