Now that the intense cultural hype has faded around Lin-Manuel Miranda’s epic 2015 musical about the founding of the nation seen through the lens of Alexander Hamilton, the verdict is in: Hamilton holds up. In fact, it’s a show for the ages, packed with killer songs and a story that will prove revelatory in new ways to future audiences as the current-events context changes.
At the opening of Hamilton’s Chicago return engagement Thursday night, for instance, the audience erupted in applause when Hamilton (Pierre Jean Gonzalez) and the Marquis de Lafayette (Jared Howelton, who also plays Thomas Jefferson) high-fived each other while exclaiming, “Immigrants: we get the job done!” As the city does its best to welcome thousands of asylum seekers regularly bused in from Texas by a malevolent governor, that line hits home in a way it didn’t back in September, 2016, when Hamilton opened its first Chicago run, one that ended in January, 2020.
Quite a lot has happened in the nation’s broader culture since then, including an attempt to violently overthrow our democratic republic by a man who would be king. Remember when Vice President-elect Mike Pence was booed by the audience at a Broadway performance of Hamilton and lectured by an actor from the stage in November of 2016? One suspects Pence, who played a key role in saving our democratic system on Jan. 6, 2021, might get quite a different reception were he to pop into the Nederlander during a presidential campaign stop this fall.
When I attended the first Chicago opening of Hamilton at the PrivateBank Theatre (now CIBC), I was blown away by Miranda pulling off something I never thought would be possible in America: tarnishing the seemingly bulletproof reputation of Thomas Jefferson as perhaps our most intellectually gifted president. It was a long-overdue takedown, shining a harsh spotlight on Jefferson and Madison’s status as slavers, even while the show rightly played up Hamilton’s anti-slavery views and underscored the message by casting actors of color in the lead roles. These were astonishingly brilliant moves, and they play every bit as well today as they did then.
But the show onstage now at the Nederlander has evolved from that one in a few interesting ways. Chief among these is how Marcus Choi plays George Washington as a wise, courageous man, yes, but one without all the answers who was scrambling as much as anyone else to see through the birth of this brave, bedraggled nation. In earlier productions, Washington was the one Founding Father portrayed much as he had been throughout history–as stoic, heroic, larger than life. Choi’s well-sung performance is a refreshing departure that will give long-time fans of the show something new to enjoy.
The other change is in the use of vocal effects that give some of the hip-hop numbers a pop-music gloss. One example: A pre-recorded opening line is echoed by the actor then singing it live. There’s quite a bit of reverb on some of the vocals and other overlaid effects. I’m on the fence about these changes. They don’t detract particularly from the wonderful songs and performances, but they don’t add much, either.
Speaking of performances, this is one solid cast from top to bottom. Gonzalez may not possess every ounce of Miranda’s charisma and playful bad-boy attitude, but man, can he sing. Howelton chomps on his dual meaty roles and never lets them go. Nikisha Williams brings a stellar voice and potently emotional delivery to the pivotal role of Eliza Hamilton. Deon’Te Goodman never loses sight of the tragedy of Aaron Burr. And Neil Haskell delivers big laughs and some extra bits of business to the role of King George.
If you haven’t seen Hamilton, this is a good shot not to miss, especially since the Nederlander offers around 400 more seats than the CIBC. What you lose in intimacy, you gain in sight lines. And if you’re a Hamilton veteran, you’ll find a lot to like in comparing and contrasting this production with the earlier Chicago one and the Broadway run.
Me? I’m looking forward to seeing Hamilton again in five or ten years to discover what new insights it reveals about America in a changed cultural context. This show was built to last.
Hamilton runs through December 30 at the Nederlander Theatre.
For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.
Photo by Joan Marcus