On Saturday April 1st 2017 I had the extreme privilege of seeing the smash hit musical Hamilton in Chicago with my sister. Tickets to this show are fairly difficult to get as they are quite expensive, but my sister and I were lucky to get our tickets as Christmas gifts back in November. I have loved this show since the soundtrack was available on Spotify in October of 2015. And it has been a dream as a theatre major to see the show performed live. When we got those tickets back in November I was obviously very excited about the opportunity. Trust me, the Chicago cast of Hamilton did not disappoint.
I really want to take most of this article to discuss the production I saw and the elements that made it such a phenomenal performance. That does mean that if you haven't listened to the entire soundtrack or if you haven't seen the production, there will be some spoilers. Its a pretty comprehensive show and if you don't want to know in case you will be seeing it, I would not recommend reading this. Unless you will be seeing the show without Wayne Brady as his last show is on April 9th. It will be a pretty different show without him as each actor brings something completely unique and their own to the character they are playing. Without further ado though, here is what I thought about the Chicago version of Hamilton the musical.
First lets talk about the technical elements of this show, as it is something that requires having a bit of an eye for theatre to fully appreciate. I was most impressed by the lighting for the production. It almost always was able to enhance the scene, making the picture onstage more vivid and clear. The picture I remember most with the lighting was in the first act of the show during the song "Right Hand Man". At the beginning of the song the chorus sings about how a British general has many troops in the water and in the harbor that the revolutionaries have to fight against. The lighting for the beginning of this song was a crystal blue with a gobo over the lights that mimicked the look and feel of rolling waters. The lights covered the entire stage and really made it feel like the actors were in the water at the harbor where General Howe was stationed. It was a breathtaking moment that made me gasp out loud in my seat. The lighting was just a beautiful addition to really add to the overall performance.
And since Hamilton is a musical after all, I feel we need to talk about the sound design and the orchestra. The sound design for this show was interesting to notice since it does include a live orchestra. But there were plenty of times when recordings were used to supplement the vocals and the orchestra. This was a little more noticeable during the first act as opposed to the second just due to the nature of the story at these points. Recordings were used a lot during the Schuyler sisters songs especially during "Helpless" and "Satisfied". The manipulation of these recordings though really helped to add the right mood and feel to the songs, especially during "Satisfied". Then the orchestra also made a huge impact outside of just the music they were playing. The conductor of the orchestra was utilized multiple times by the actors onstage, keeping with the breaking of the 4th wall present throughout the show. Usually this was to a comedic effect and it defenetly did work in most cases.
Speaking of comedy, lets get into the actors performances during this show. If were talking about pure comedy, the single most comedic character was Alexander Gemignani's portrayal of King George the 3rd. Now King George isn't onstage much, he has three songs and then is involved in two other scenes. But even with so little stage time, Gemigani made an impact with his perfect characterization of a self absorbed, slightly childish ruler of a huge empire. To begin George was quite reserved, only making the slightest movements and dances during "You'll Be Back". Then as the show went on King George became more and more animated, practically stealing the show by the time he was finished being onstage. Which included a great moment during "The Reynolds Pamphlet" where he came out onstage dancing around Alexander Hamilton, pointing and laughing at him while making it rain money. King George was also another character that used the conductor as part of his act. All in all Alexander Gemigani was hilarious as King George and was very memorable.
Another actor that stuck out to me was the woman playing Angelica Schuyler Candace Quarrels. She is usually the understudy for Angelica, but was able to perform that evening as the usual Angelica Karen Olivio was out for the night. Having Candace though was a wonderful edition to the cast as she made a perfect Angelica. Candace's voice was soulful with a broad range that fit the musicality of the part, and she brought out all the conflicting sides of the character. For the first time I almost cried during "Satisfied", as Angelica's sadness at not being Alexander's bride was palpable. It hung in the air, effecting everyone around me as Angelica dealt with the situation before her. Quarrels performance was a masterpiece that reaffirmed my belief that Angelica is the most well rounded character of the Schuyler sisters.
Since we are on the subject of Schuyler sisters, lets talk about the main one, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton portrayed by Ari Afsar. Who is a former Miss America contestant and American Idol finalist, so she does have quite a voice. Even though I felt her high belt or head voice wasn't quite as powerful as Eliza's character truly requires. But she still had an amazing tone for Eliza's songs and worked well with Miguel Cervantes. They had a unique chemistry that really worked for the characters, and you could tell how hurt Eliza was by Alexanders infidelity. Her performance during the "Stay Alive Reprise" though was the highlight of the show for Eliza. Most people in the audience including myself were crying with her as she held her dying son in her arms, trying to comfort him as he made his way to his death. It was a heartbreaking moment in the sadder and more serious second act. Overall Ari had a nice performance as Eliza and made the character a little easier to relate to than when you hear her in the cast recording.
We've hit most of the main players between both acts besides the two main characters of the show. So lets now talk about the actors who switch characters in between acts. This would be Chris De'Sean Lee who was Lafayette/Jefferson, Wallace Smith who played Mulligan/Madison, Jose Ramos who portrayed Laurens/Philip, and Samantha Marie Ware who is the other Schuyler sister Peggy and Maria Reynolds. Each actor had very distinct character choices that really made their two differing characters stand out.
During the first act Lee was the most noticeable with his Lafayette who was so sure of himself and quite sexual as well. It made for an entertaining performance as Lafayette almost always got laughs when he was onstage. Then his Jefferson was similar but was even more imposing with his quick looks and expert facial expressions. Ramos made a great best friend for Hamilton in the first act as Laurens, making it easy to tell that Laurens cared for Alexander like more than a brother. He was then able to transform into Philip, working well between his age changes from 9, to about 13, to then 19. His death was also incredibly moving and made me cry, so there's that as well.
But the real standout of this group was Wallace Smith as Hercules Mulligan and James Madison. Smith's Mulligan was cocky, vibrant, and strong, being the revolutionary of the four who had the craziest job. You could tell that his Mulligan loved being the undercover spy, getting the most vital information for the revolution. But it was Smith's Madison that made him such a standout. His Madison was quite sick and very regal. Always standing up straight with a handkerchief in his hand, ready for the short witty response to back up Thomas Jefferson. I think it was his complete seriousness that made him so enjoyable to watch as Smith was totally committed to the character he was creating up on the stage in Madison. He worked perfectly with Lee's Jefferson, Wayne Brady's Burr, and Cervantes Alexander Hamilton. Wallace Smith had a wonderful performance that still has me giggling over a week later.
Now we get into the heavyweight characters of the show. Lets start with General and President George Washington as he is not alive the entire show. The first thought I had when Jonathan Kirkland stepped onstage was, "Wow is he tall." He towered over the rest of the cast, almost a good foot taller than Miguel Cervantes playing Hamilton. Kirkland also had a low bass speaking voice that was quite commanding. His look worked well for Washington, making him an imposing figure, someone defiently with a lot of power. But there was also that gentleness to him that was needed for his relationship with Hamilton. Kirkland was able to expertly capture both sides of Washington, making him a great general and presidential figure in the show.
We have to talk about the character who the show is named after now, Alexander Hamilton. The forgotten founding father who put our federal financial system into place portrayed by Miguel Cervantes. One of the first things I noticed about Cervantes Hamilton is that he was incredibly sure of himself. There was this confidence that Alexander had when talking to Aaron Burr and the revolutionaries that just oozed out of Cervantes. Making Hamilton almost like one of those college frat boys who is top in his class and knows he will be a sensation. It was something I had never noticed in Lin Manuel Miranda's performance of Hamilton. His Hamilton was more timid and unsure of himself, whereas Cervantes' knew exactly what he wanted and that he was going to get it.
Cervantes was also able to show the beautiful character progression that Hamilton takes throughout the show. You see him go from being this brash and hotheaded young man, to a successful and slightly arrogant founding father, to a defeated adulter. He then becomes a wise and well learned middle aged man, who makes the choice to let his life be taken instead of fighting back just to defend his name. It's a beautiful journey that Cervantes captures expertly with his self assured character and harmonious voice. It's a performance you don't want to miss.
Last but not least we have Aaron Burr, portrayed by Wayne Brady in the performance I saw. Let me tell you, I don't think there could be a more perfect casting choice for Burr that Wayne Brady. Brady was able to play both sides of Burr, showing his progression from knowing he would get what he want. To being so insecure and broken down by the world that he would no longer let Alexander Hamilton stand in his way. The shift between these two sides of Burr was handled expertly by Brady in that performance. You could pinpoint the moment it happened, right as "The Room Where it Happened" came to a close. With the red lighting behind him, Brady's Burr sings about he wants to be where it happens, that he will become a force in the federal government.
From then on Brady's Burr is malicious and menacing, always one step behind Hamilton to remind him of his actions. It was a very different take than what I was used to with the cast album and Leslie Odom Jr. But it worked so well for his version of Burr who seemed to be more hurt and broken by Hamilton's successes against him that Odom's. While I've always found Burr a very sympathetic character as someone who just wanted to be known for something, anything good to do with the start of the new nation. But who ended up being remembered just for shooting Alexander Hamilton dead, not the things he helped to do in Congress. And despite the hard edge Brady brought to his Burr, you could still tell how guilty he felt after the duel with Hamilton. He was choked up, looking to be on the verge of tears as he finished "The World Was Wide Enough" after realizing that he and Hamilton could have coexisted together peaceably if he hadn't ended his life. It was a passionate performance that left me breathless as it came to a close.
At my performance we also got a special treat after the show had officially ended. We ended up going to a performance on the evening of a Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS show, where afterwards you could put money in the red buckets to donate to the Broadway non-profit. The best part about going to one of these shows though is that at the end the cast always auctions off some sort of almost priceless gift or in our case performance. Considering Wayne Brady's history as being a stand up and improv comedian with a focus in music, they ended the performance with an improv song. If you were in the audience and donated 100 dollars, you could chose a word for Brady to use in his song. There were some interesting words used, such as onomatopoeia, malarkey, and pookie, suggested by a man who Wayne then decided to call Ray Ray. It was a fun song that ended up being about chicken noodle soup (also suggested by the audience), electing many laughs. It was a wonderful ending to a perfect evening of powerful musical theatre.
I am still blown away over a week later by how phenomenal this performance was in Chicago. I've seen a lot of amazing theatre in my time, but this one absolutely took the cake. If you are somehow able to go see Hamilton in Chicago I would highly advise it. It was worth the high price tag for a moving piece of theatre. I can't wait until I see it again, or am lucky enough to be apart of a production. Thank you Hamilton for everything, I will not forget what all you have done for not just myself but hundreds of thousands of theatre fans.