Theater review: Hamilton at the Peace Center
You know about the hip-hop lyrics, the period costumes, and the duels. But what about the rotating stage, the intricate lighting, and the tireless backing ensemble of singers and dancers?
Regardless of one’s knowledge of Hamilton, until you actually see the show performed live, these details and others are mere tantalizing pieces of a larger creation, waiting to be experienced as a whole.
When they all come together in the national touring production currently at the Peace Center, the combination frequently results in theatrical ecstasy of the highest degree, verging on sensory overload at times but in ways that intelligently challenge viewers, dare them to keep pace, and reward them practically every time.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical distillation of Ron Chernow’s hefty biography Alexander Hamilton is as good as advertised, but the chronicle of the titular immigrant from the West Indies (Joseph Morales) has the potential to isolate and even frustrate certain theatergoers.
Despite the show’s must-see status, audience members who don’t listen to socially conscious hip-hop might have difficulty following the story and grasping some fairly complex concepts regarding the genesis of the United States as told through frequently intricate rhyme structures. The disconnect is especially likely in the rapid-fire first act, though even a novice’s ears are likely to adjust and catch more content with each song, further aided by lyrics delivered through approachable singing and flat out spoken dialogue.
Though Act Two loops in phenomenal one-on-one showdowns between members of President Washington’s cabinet, staged as rap battles straight out of 8 Mile, the style gives way to a greater percentage of classic Broadway ballads. The move clarifies the ongoing narrative, but in turn the show loses some of the spark that made the opening half so energetic, especially in a late section where the focus shifts to the Hamiltons’ domestic life.
Aware of this change in energy and subject matter, Miranda cheekily calls attention to it at the start of “The Election of 1800” as Thomas Jefferson (Kyle Scatliffe) somewhat sarcastically pleads, “Can we get back to politics?” and ushers in a strong blend of the preceding musical approaches that successfully coexist to the finish.
As he must for the show to work, Morales carries scene after scene, channeling Hamilton’s ambition, tireless work ethic, and tragic flaws with equal aplomb. Even better — though blessed with a juicier part — Nik Walker excels as the Salieri-like Aaron Burr, and reaches his greatest heights in the jazzy “The Room Where It Happens,” the odds-on favorite for earworm status in the hours and probably days following the show.
While the Hamilton cast is predominately male, Shoba Narayan and Ta'Rea Campbell are captivating over a range of comedic and dramatic moments as sisters Eliza and Angelica Schuyler, respectively, both of whom enchant Hamilton in distinct manners.
Impressive for different reasons, the actors tasked with a new role in Act Two are likewise marvelous as they carve out varied scene-stealing turns. Scatliffe transitions nicely from Lafayette to Mr. Monticello, Fergie L. Philippe goes from the warm bombast of Hercules Mulligan to the submissiveness of Jefferson lackey James Madison with ease, and Elijah Malcomb convincingly pivots from fiery abolitionist John Laurens to the Hamiltons’ nine-year-old son Philip, as well as a leap to his late teen years.
In the less-showy roles, Marcus Choi gets the job done as Washington, and Nyla Sostre adds brief pep as third-wheel Schuyler sister Peggy and Hamilton temptress Maria Reynolds. Their truncated characterization is perhaps necessary to make room for the ridiculously pompous King George (Jon Patrick Walker), whose pseudo ‘60s Brit-pop solos expressing his displeasure with the Colonies earn some of the show’s biggest laughs.
Under the confident direction of Thomas Kail, the culturally diverse performers navigate the stage’s sizable balcony and the circular movements of the floor like the pros they are, addressing the audience and co-stars while the turntable-like foundation further solidifies the content’s musical DNA in tandem with a talented pit orchestra (complete with vinyl scratches).
The cumulative effect of their efforts in achieving Miranda’s vision is as delightful and powerful — and possibly more so — than whatever one’s already lofty expectations are/were for the buzziest musical in recent memory. A second helping before too long feels both warranted and desirable, but in the meantime it’s back to the original cast recording and other formerly disparate details, now fortified by the memories of witnessing the complete real deal in person.
Hamilton runs through Dec. 16 at the Peace Center in Greenville, South Carolina. For tickets, visit peacecenter.org.
(Photos: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of the Peace Center)