Theater review: Miranda sets a high bar with 'Hamilton'

The national company of the Broadway smash hit, "Hamilton," has settled in at Proctors in Schenectady, N.Y. for an engagement that runs through Aug. 25. And, yes, Virginia, it is every bit as good as its word-of-mouth.

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — "Sometimes, the right person tells the right story at the right moment, and through a combination of luck and design, a creative expression gains new force. Spark, tinder, breeze," former New York Magazine theater critic Jeremy McCarter writes in his essays in "Hamilton: The Revolution," the full account, with complete libretto, of the creation and development of the astonishing hip-hop musical "Hamilton."

Clearly, composer-lyricist-librettist Lin-Manuel Miranda, who initially conceived this theatrical tour-de-force as a hip-hop concept album, is the right person, telling the right story at precisely the right time, especially as "Hamilton" is playing out at Proctors, where a first-rate national touring company has settled in through Aug. 25.

And before I go any further, yes, Virginia, "Hamilton" is every bit as good as its word-of-mouth.

Inspired by Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton — diplomat, writer, the nation's first Secretary of the Treasury; a controversial figure who fell just a bit short of his ambition and died in a duel with his fierce political rival, Aaron Burr, played by Josh Tower in this touring company with a commanding blend of authority, ambition, grinding envy and a certain grudging respect for Hamilton (played as a brooding, angry man at Wednesday's press opening by Alexander Ferguson, one of two stand-bys for Hamilton regular Edred Utomi.

Set in the crucible of the founding of a nation, "Hamilton" is the classic immigrant story — a Creole orphan from the Caribbean, born out of wedlock, whose father abandoned him in childhood and a mother who died when he was 12. At 19, he made his way to New York and from there "Hamilton" traces the rise and something of a fall — politically and, to some degree, personally — of one of the major players in the establishment and securing of a new nation.

By any way of reckoning, "Hamilton" is a stunning achievement that sprang, not without sweat, from a mind of seemingly limitless bravery, courage and accomplishment. Miranda has set a high bar for himself and for American musical theater.

Hip-hop is the musical stream, the arc, but Miranda moves this music in a bold theatrical direction that, in its lyrics, displays remarkable wit, depth of feeling, poetry, and in its music, an ability to move hip-hop into unexpected directions. Miranda shows a wickedly sly wit, especially in his treatment of King George (played by Peter Matthew Smith with a joyously wicked style), who is given one of the show's more delicious numbers in "You'll Be Back."

The show's first half, for the most part, is painted in big, bold strokes; surging production numbers that are as intimate as they are big and expansive. The staging and movement are as precise as they are fluid and graceful. Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography is, by turns, graceful and light-foooted; sharp, angular and muscular.

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Among Miranda's singular achievements in "Hamilton" is his ability to make clear a complicated story about conflicting alliances and allegiances. But it's not only politics and political philosophy that govern here. Miranda is as interested — perhaps more so — in the personal underpinnings; Hamilton's complex relationship with Aaron Burr; more than that, with a wife, Eliza Schuyler (a luminous Hannah Cruz), whom he clearly loves even though he has a strong attraction to her sister, Angelica (an even more luminous Stephanie Umoh), as she does for him.

Hamilton, himself, is not an easy figure. As he grows older, more experienced, he emerges in many ways as his own worst enemy and it winds up costing him his place in history; his life.

"Hamilton" is about as right and full a theatrical experience as you could want; one that fills the mind while it engages the senses.

"Hamilton" is about the making of a nation by men of principle who disagreed, often sharply, but who were united in goal if not the ways to achieve that goal. But it also is about legacy; about what we leave the generations that follow; how we live on and continue. It is about the stories we tell about our lives and how we choose to tell them.

"Will they tell your story? / Who lives, who dies / Will they tell your story?" the full ensemble sings at one point.