On March 12, 2020, the phenomenon Hamilton was due to return to the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. Because of the escalating pandemic, the production — and pretty much an entire planet — shut down. Now, 17 months later in Aug 2021, the musical is back on track and settling into the grandiose theater for an extended five-month stay. Yet the curtain rises before an audience, cast, and country quite changed by the events of the last year-and-a-half.
Hamilton could not be a better way to relaunch theater in Los Angeles. So much in the text was already relevant during its pre-Covid years, and now, the timeliness is volcanic. This nation has been torn apart, and while the war-cry is no longer “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,” but “Take Your Vaccine and Shove It,” the battle lines are just as divided. More pointedly, Hamilton is a show about revolution and the groups left out of that revolution because they were considered less than. Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda, this contemporary operetta combines traditional Broadway ballads, rap, and hip-hop and allows the folks on the sidelines back then to take front-and-center places in this theatrical version of history.
For newcomers to the Tony-winning musical, Hamilton tells the tale of Alexander Hamilton (original West End star Jamael Westman), who arrives from Nevis to a pre-revolutionary America and joins the likes of General George Washington (Carvens Lissaint) andMarquis de Lafayette (Simon Longnight) to declare war against the English crown’s tyranny. Hamilton clashes with bon vivant Aaron Burr (Nicholas Christopher) — a politician in every sense of the word, someone concerned with power, not causes. Hamilton may not always stand for the correct issue, but he at least sticks by his convictions, something of which he declares Burr has none.
In our America, the winds of revolution were stirred as people took to the streets to protest the widespread violence against the Black community after the murder of George Floyd. Even with a deadly virus running rampant throughout the world, the protestors and activists marched on with face coverings, because even if it put their lives in jeopardy from Covid-19, the cause was a matter of life and death regardless. The Black Lives Matter protests and subsequent oppositional backlash, which twisted the demonstrations with conspiracy theories, mirrors exact scenes in Miranda’s script. It’s challenging to not look at Hamilton now through the lens of the last year.
Besides the political events that color this version of the Thomas Kail’s production, Hamilton is the first large scale theater event to hit Los Angeles since before Covid took hold. The audience at opening night was ravenous to see live theater. They stood up and applauded almost every song and shouted encouragement at the stage. True, Hamilton has always evoked an ecstatic response from audiences, but this crowd seemed to be tasting air for the first time — as best as they could at least, with the required face masks.
The current ensemble truly sizzles. The choreography, a character itself due to the genius work of Tony winner Andy Blankenbuehler, is danced with precision. The actors move like they are desperate to communicate. In past casts, the smackdowns between Burr and Hamilton (as portrayed by 2017 Los Angeles stars Joshua Henry and Michael Luwoye, and on Broadway/Disney Plus by Leslie Odom Jr. and Miranda himself) have always left Burr dominating Hamilton as far as presence goes. Here, for the first time in my viewing history, it was the Hamilton who captured my attention more (though Christopher’s Burr is still excellent). Westman, who earned an Olivier nomination for his work, taps into the character’s pathos as well as his frustration and selfishness. It’s a magnificent performance, one that draws the audience towards the title character and makes him the center of attention whenever on stage.
Lissaint is authoritative as Washington and Longnight is hysterical as both the jovial but strategic Lafayette in Act One and the bombastic, egotistical Thomas Jefferson in Act Two. Returning to the role of King George, which he played here in 2017, Rory O’Malley is at his foppish best commenting on the travails of running a country. However, while both Sabrina Sloan (Angelica) and Joanna A. Jones (Eliza) have outstanding voices, they lack the presence to truly beguile as the Schulyer Sisters. Eliza, particularly, is the heart of the show and Jones doesn’t impact the audience as other performers I’ve seen had.
The world is evolving and like the finale of Hamilton asks, “Who will tell your story?” The underlying question is, when it’s told, will you like what they say? In these troubling, chaotic times, it may be most impactful to have convictions and be a Hamilton, not a Burr.