By Oline H. Cogdill
Does it ever get boring being in the room where it happens?
No, it does not, as illustrated from the moment Aaron Burr begins recounting the story of this lad from the Caribbean who became one the United States’ Founding Fathers in the tight, engrossing production of Hamilton at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts through March 15.
Whether you’ve seen Hamilton more than a dozen times, as has one of my previous bosses, or three times, as I have (twice within the past month) or the first time as had my 21-year-old theater companion (though he plays the music a lot), Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sung-through masterpiece still captivates.
And I do not lightly use the words masterpiece or captivate.
The production currently at the Arsht is the same that recently was at the Kravis—with a few exceptions—and was reviewed by Bill Hirschman, Florida Theater on Stage editor and chief critic.
For those who have never been in the room where it happens—or are not familiar with the phrase—Hamilton is the 2015 musical that describes the beginnings of the United States by retelling of the life of the eponymous historical figure. According to Hirschman’s review, Miranda spent six years working on and off with a cadre including In The Heights cohorts Kail, Blankenbuehler, and musical director/orchestrator Alex Lacamoire (a former New World School of the Arts student) to retell the arc described in Ron Chernow’s 2004 book.
Hirschman’s review added that Miranda saw resonances between Hamilton’s life and the creation of this country with those of today’s multi-cultural fractious society of mostly young ambitious contemporary generations. They used the musical genres of hip-hop, rap, jazz, blues, rock, an echo of boogie woogie and a bit of Broadway, and then cast all the parts other than King George with minorities. Miranda took the lead part and the show cemented the stardom of Leslie Odom Jr. as the nemesis Aaron Burr.
As Hirschman explained, “The stage story – a mixture of fact and fiction — tracks this orphaned immigrant from the West Indies as he arrives in New York in 1776 to become a fiery speaker and lawyer, and is immediately caught up in the rebellion, then becomes an aide de camp to Washington during the war, marries one of the Schuyler sisters while fighting feelings for another. He becomes embroiled in the politics of the young country with changing fortunes along with new administrations. Along the way, he co-authors The Federalist Papers that served as a basis for the Constitution and serves as Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury. That leads to an ongoing philosophical fight with Thomas Jefferson. He runs afoul of former friend Burr, resulting in the duel that took his life at age 47 (or 49).
As for those who balk at the idea they might enjoy a musical heavily bound with rap, get over it. There is very little difference between Miranda’s use of rap than Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter.
On opening night at the Arsht, Alexander Ferguson delivers a rousing Aaron Burr, a role for which he normally is the understudy. Ferguson sets the musical’s mood and tone of Hamilton, by laying out Hamilton’s humble beginnings as a bastard immigrant destined to become “a hero and a scholar.” Ferguson illustrates both Burr’s admiration and barely disguised jealousy that only grows as Hamilton’s star rising as Burr’s descends. That Burr was not in the room where policy was made eats at his soul.
As Hamilton, Edred Utomi is as commanding as he was in the Kravis production. At his first appearance, the Arsht audience erupted into applause—something that many big-name performances don’t achieve. Also giving multi-dimensions performances are Stephanie Umoh as Angelica, Zoe Jensen as Eliza. A special nod to showstoppers Paul Oakley Stovall as Washington, and Peter Matthew Smith as King George.
Except for the four elderly people sitting next to us, who fell asleep two minutes into the production and left at intermission, the Arsht audience on opening night was one of the most respectful we’ve ever seen. They were quiet, attentive and I only heard one cell phone go off and that was in the second act. The sound also was crystal clear and most of the lyrics understandable, though a few songs were, admittedly, muddy. (I’m looking at you, Lafayette. I have never been able to understand a word Lafayette says, but I sure enjoyed his theatrics.)
Even if you have seen Hamilton before, the Arsht’s production is stellar. If you can get a ticket, don’t throw away your shot. Hamilton reinforces how lucky we are to be alive right now.
(And for those who didn’t understand my references to Hamilton lyrics, again, don’t throw away your show).
It is my honor to be your obedient servant.
Hamilton plays through March 15 in the Ziff Ballet Opera House, Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. (305) 949-6722, https://miami.broadway.com. Performances 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $79-$449. Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including one intermission.
To read the review of this production at the Kravis Center earlier this year, click here.