Friday, June 28, 2019

Non Stop

I'm addicted!

I got to see Hamilton again this week. This is the third cast that I've seen, and I still enjoy the show dearly: by now I don't think there are many elements that I haven't picked up on before, so I focus more on the individual performances, how each actor's portrayal adds to or changes my impression of a character and the overall show.

This is the new "And Peggy" touring company, which played a series of shows in Puerto Rico to help fund reconstruction from Hurricane Maria and is now focused on a long-term sit-down performance in San Francisco; unlike the first national tour's opening in San Francisco, the next city hasn't been announced yet, so they may continue extending their engagement here while demand remains high. Based on the enthusiasm I've seen for the show and the strength of this performance, I think they may remain for a while yet; there probably isn't the population here to support a run as long as Chicago's, but then again, folks are willing to travel to see the show. I chatted with a family of four who had driven up from San Diego primarily to catch the performance, and talked about how this was the only music all of them could enjoy listening to at the same time in the car.

My literal perspective on the show was different, too. I'd previously seen the first national tour from the center rear of the orchestra and the center front row of the loge, and the Chicago performance from the balcony. This time, I scored tickets in the "F" row, close to the stage right side but only six rows back. It was really cool to be able to see all the facial expressions of the actors in great detail, which adds a great dimension to many encounters; Alexander in particular will often pull a face or perform a little celebration at the end of a conversation. The tradeoff was that I couldn't see the actual floor of the stage and so the turntables were invisible, but of course you can still see their effect; as a result, a lot of the movement seemed more subtle, or else had more of a floating effect.

I mostly want to talk about the actors, so let's do that!

Every cast has a very different Hamilton. Julius Thomas, to me, seemed very relational: You really feel his deep affection for his friends, his love for Eliza, his devotion to Washington. With Michael Luwoye, I kind of felt like Hamilton was sacrificing everything to feed his ambition; not in a manipulative way, but no single relationship was more important to him than achieving his ideal of greatness. With Julius, I felt like it was more reversed: it's his devotion to his newfound friends that thrusts him into the revolutionary cause, his admiration of Washington that convinces him to pursue government. Julius's Hamilton is really appealing as a result, someone I like and don't just admire.

Donald Webber as Burr was amazing, a buttery singer and smooth mover and talker. I should probably stop writing "This actor was good at singing and everything" since that's true for everyone! I felt like this Burr was a little more... hollow, I guess, in a way that was really interesting. It's like he puts up this smooth and charming facade to hide that he doesn't have much going on inside. He emphasized the "Smile More" aspect of Burr, while the other actors I've seen put more focus on "Talk Less"; their Burrs are subtle observers who want to avoid attention, while Webber's Burr is a pleasant participant who skims along the surface and avoids deep entanglements.

The night I went, Morgan Anita Wood was the substitute for Eliza, and I thought she was great. The more I watch this show, the more I feel like Eliza might be the hardest role: as a character she's introverted and deferential, and she doesn't get as many opportunities as Burr to sing to the audience about what's going on inside her mind. She was played with a lot of vulnerability and sweetness, truly helpless under Hamilton's gaze.

As a side note, I think this was the first performance of the show I've seen where the three Schuyler actresses looked like they really could be sisters. I don't think that's at all necessary, obviously; a big part of the show's vision is its reinterpretation of historical people. But I thought that did add a fun visual element to the show, to have a more feasible resemblance among the sisters.

Sabrina Sloan as Angelica was a very different take on the role. I think the other Angelicas I've seen have emphasized the intelligence and independence; they feel emotion, but keep it buried deep. This Angelica does a poorer job at hiding her attraction to Alexander, which was awesome to see: it adds more dramatic tension to his relationship with Eliza, and it was really interesting to see Angelica as a more vulnerable woman with deep longings.

Rounding out the trio, Darilyn Castillo was an almost opposite Peggy/Maria to the one in the first national tour. That Peggy was bold and sassy, while this one is bubbly and sweet: much more the archetypal youngest sister, she's wide-eyed at the world around her and nervous but enthusiastic about participating in it. Likewise, the previous portrayals of Maria had seemed deliberately inscrutable: more sexy, and I was left unsure whether she (the character) was a good actress scamming Hamilton or a desperate woman putting up a strong facade. With Darilyn, though, I didn't doubt that Maria was scared, and needy, and in anguish over the course her life was taken.

(Lots has already been written about this, but the musical's handling of Hamilton's affair really impresses me. It would have been so easy to say "Our hero has been tricked by this wiley woman, what a poor victim he is!" The show doesn't let Hamilton off the hook: it shows the reasons why he did what he did, while making it clear that those reasons don't excuse his action. It really forces the audience to steep in the uncomfortable consequences and avoids giving him a pass.)

One returning face for me was Ruben Carbajal, who reprises his Laurens/Philip role from the first national tour. He was great! Out of all the shows I've seen, this was definitely the best at portraying the unique Hamilton/Laurens relationship; I was looking for it in all of the live performances, and this was the first time I really saw it. I think that's partly because the two actors have great chemistry, and it certainly helps that Ruben has had so many years to hone and perfect the role. His Philip is heartbreaking and sweet, and honestly this was a better physical matchup with Julius than with Luwoye, which visually was kind of funny since that Philip loomed over his dad.

Simon Longnight was also the best Lafayette/Jefferson I've seen yet. Listening to the soundtrack, I thought of this primarily as a role that demanded a fast and talented rapper, but I now think that it demands charisma even more, and Longnight has both in spades. He has a great presence as the Marquis in the first act, and really comes alive as Jefferson, from his splendid entrance through all his comedic business with Madison and his bottled scorn for Burr and his chagrined admiration for Hamilton. Internally, you also get a great sense for the forces driving him; I've previously thought of Jefferson as a dilettante, a guy who enjoys playing the game but doesn't really have any skin in it, but this Jefferson really does care about his home state and his way of life and believes he is battling for a worthy cause.

My visceral favorite character in the show might have been Hercules Mulligan, which is always a fun role but who Brandon Louis Armstrong knocked particularly far out of the park. This version felt especially profane and was a delight to watch, bobbing and bouncing and thrusting, carrying his beat with him wherever he went. (Yet another side note: While the overall lyrics are identical in every performance, there are some vocalizations that vary. In "Right Hand Man," I expect Mulligan to say "B'rah!" in response to Hamilton's statements; here, Armstrong says "Uh!" instead. Very different, and really perfect for this character, who feels simple and direct and fun.) And, like the other Mulligans I've seen, Armstrong manages a complete transformation into Madison in the second act. This version emphasizes the side-kick relationship with Jefferson, which is a fun dynamic; in the first national touring show, Madison almost seemed to outshine Jefferson, and the Chicago version seemed like a toady, so it was great to see yet another possible relationship here.

I'd been looking forward to seeing Isaiah Johnson again. Along with Ruben, he was the other returning actor from the first national tour, and might have been my favorite performer of that cast (alongside Emmy Raver-Lampman). Unfortunately, he was out the night I attended, but his substitute Vincent Jamal Hooper was fantastic. His Washington was more human-sized than the others I've seen; you get the sense of his fear of inadequacy, that he won't be able to accomplish what he needs to do and everything weighing on it. In this show I felt like the Hamilton/Washington relationship was more one of peers, where each man needed what the other offered, than the father/son vibe of other shows. Again, the physical aspect of the actors may have played a part in my impression; I think that in all of the other productions I've seen, Washington has towered over Hamilton, while here they have more similar builds and see eye to eye.

Finally, Rick Negron as King George was a much scarier and more menacing presence than Rory O'Malley had been. Rory's George was mostly comic relief, very expressive and goofy. Negron, though, feels coiled and compressed, dangerous, like an animal about to strike. It's still funny, especially in the later songs, but here the humor cuts the menace rather than the other way around.

Visually, I thought that the ensemble was a lot more varied than before; I'd remarked earlier, how I felt like I was seeing doppelgangers for Betsy Stuxness, Carleigh Bettiol, Thayne Jasperson, and other members of the original Broadway cast. Here, I'm sure the tracks are the same, but the body types and coloring seemed distinct. But I did notice upon reviewing the performance credits that there were quite a few substitutions in the ensemble, so I'm not sure if that's always the case for this cast.

So yeah, I had a great time! When I first saw Hamilton I was mostly concerned about whether the live performance could live up to my sky-high expectations from the original Broadway cast recording. Now, though, I'm going into these shows most interested in seeing all the ways the different casts can pull it off: fresh spins on each character, different moods being projected, reinterpreting their relationships and dynamics. I know this is a big part of what theater is all about, but I'm still astonished at the incredible range of variations you can get while still keeping every word the same. Honestly, I doubt that this will be the last time I see the show, and I think the material is so strong that it will provide even more opportunities for future casts to discover new gems inside.

No comments:

Post a Comment