The Hamilton Phenomena Arrives at the Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto
***NOTE: All performances are cancelled between Saturday, March 14 through Sunday, April 12 to respect social-distancing requests around COVID -19
If you’re the type of person who reads theatre reviews, you’re probably well aware of Hamilton, now playing at the Ed Mirvish Theatre. As lyricist-composer Lin-Manuel Miranda puts it, it’s that quintessential hip-hop story of a scrappy young man who starts from the bottom, succeeds by sheer bravado and talent, and is then undone by the same hubris that precipitated his meteoric rise. The story just applies, in this case, to America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, as the country violently transitions from colonial rule to self-government.
Based on Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, the show was a cultural and award-winning juggernaut, one of few modern works to actually claim the title of game-changer outside of the insular theatre scene. The only question is: does the Toronto production live up to the quality and hype of the show itself? The answer is: yes, mostly.
The show is tightly and brilliantly crafted. Miranda’s writing is a masterclass in suiting rhythm, rhyme, and tone to situation and character. His music is infectious, drawing from multiple styles, and making cheeky references to both the musical theatre canon and actual cannons.
The show’s structure is intricate, pitting the destruction of war against the creative act of writing, and pitting Hamilton against his eventual killer, the show’s narrator, Aaron Burr. As the men weave in and out of each other’s lives, Hamilton’s frantic, ever-shifting rap contrasts with Burr’s more measured, cooler R&B stylings; the first man is incapable of waiting to declare his passions, and the other seems to do nothing but delay.
Joseph Morales as Hamilton ably attends to his huge task. While a slight reserve in affect prevents him from completely attaining the magnetic charisma of which the other characters speak, he nails the angst that underscores Hamilton’s drive, and his later world-weariness. It’s a unique take on the character, reminding us of his initial youth and inexperience.
For all of Burr’s reticence, Jared Dixon blazes forth, particularly in the Act I showstopper, “Wait For It.” Like a reverse Iago on Hamilton’s shoulder that tells him to avoid action, he’s simultaneously uptight and a little wicked and charming.
Miranda also creates a love triangle through an impressive study in perspective, as the two main women in Hamilton’s life, sisters Angelica and Elizabeth Schuyler, differently recount the same event of how they all met. Eliza’s hopeful, starry-eyed love of her husband-to-be is captured in a Beyoncé-like pop number, while Angelica and Hamilton’s matched wit is reflected in the shared complexity of their internal rhymes. The women symbolize a debate of ethics and personality: is it all right to decide we have enough, or should we never be satisfied?
While I wanted more of the blaze of attraction between either woman and Hamilton, the sisters connect well, and mirror each other’s personalities. Ta’Rea Campbell’s Angelica’s intensity surrounds a tender heart, while Stephanie Jae Park’s Eliza is sweet but steely inside. The blank look, hard-edged look on her face when recovering from shock or tragedy is an effectively jarring contrast to her optimism and kindness.
Such motifs and themes recur effectively, with reprises twisting around the original meanings of words and ideas. In “My Shot,” for example, a shot is simultaneously a chance, a dose of alcohol, and a bullet — and each one features prominently in the main character’s rise and fall.
The only issue with all this relentless craftsmanship is that the cleverness of the words has a tendency to overshadow other means of characterization. The breakneck pace, particularly in the first act, makes it seem as if the actors have to hold on and keep up with the text, rather than truly make it their own – although the ride is still thrilling. The second act gets more room to breathe, adding depth and emotional impact, particularly as the tragedies pile up and hurtle us toward the end that was inevitable from the first song.
Above all, the show is concerned with the idea of legacy, leaving one’s mark, and who gets to write and star in the history that we pass down. In service of that concept, the show’s only white main cast member is King George III (Neil Haskell), who hilariously prances and preens with an imperious, nasal delivery of Brit-Pop, even snapping the lighting to attention. Otherwise, the casting lets us reconsider history and our heroes through the idea expressed in one of its most famous lines: “Immigrants. We get the job done.”
The double-casting of many of Hamilton’s friends and foes serves to make thematic connections between the people in his life, and his crew all add to the show’s electricity. As French rebel leader Lafayette, Warren Egypt Franklin goes from clumsily rhyming in his second language to adapting so well to his new circumstances that he spits the fastest lines in the show. Returning from France as Thomas Jefferson, he adds panache, insouciance and a sardonic grin to Hamilton’s rival in a purple crushed-velvet suit.
Elijah Malcomb has a lovely tenor and is passionate as abolitionist Laurens; he’s also genuinely lovable as Hamilton’s son Philip, desperate to be like his father. Darilyn Castillo’s naive Peggy contrasts with a sultry Maria Reynolds, who adds some heat to the Ham.
In a single role, Marcus Choi’s George Washington behaves like the adult in the room, a wise and weary figure trying to get both his charges and nation to behave.
The ensemble, primarily in blank-slate period undergarments (Paul Tazewell), moves so seamlessly to create crowds and armies that you almost don’t appreciate them, though you should. The set (David Korins), is comprised of levels of wood that resemble the deck of a sailing ship, and the props also do their job by adding brief visual interest, then fading into the background as this finely-tuned explosive machine of joy moves like clockwork onstage. As the show puts it, it’s “non-stop.”
So, will Toronto be receptive to a show so steeped in American mythos, that has taken so long to arrive on our shores? Judging by the people around me emphatically gesturing and whispering along, I’d say it’s a decent bet. Which is great, because this show about passion and creation deserves all the enthusiasm we can muster.
- Hamilton plays at the Ed Mirvish Theatre (244 Victoria Street) until May 17, 2020. (***NOTE: All performances are cancelled between Saturday, March 14 through Sunday, April 12 to respect social-distancing requests around COVID -19)
- Shows run Tuesday-Saturday at 8:00PM, with Wednesday 1:30PM and Saturday-Sunday 2:00PM matinees. (The schedule changes April 6; see website for details.)
- Tickets are $175-$550 and can be purchased online, by calling 416-872-1212, or in person at the Theatre Box Office. A lottery for $10 tickets is available two days before each performance.
- The show features mature language.
Photo of Joseph Morales and company by Joan Marcus