So often, expectations can overwhelm an actual experience, but the gripping Hamilton at the Pantages lives up to the hype. A passionate retelling of American history, Hamilton recites the tale of a leader who had been known more as a murder victim than a forefather, even though his financial foundation built the prosperous treasury system that kept the new country afloat (and that we still use today). By interpreting the past through a reconstructed approach to race, hiring actors of mixed ethnicities, and writing the score within the hip-hop genre, creator Lin-Manuel Miranda spotlights the country's racial divides and how "We the People" often miscount who is included as "we."
An immigrant from the West Indies, Alexander Hamilton (Michael Luwoye) hungers to be important in the New World. Unlike his indecisive friend Aaron Burr (Joshua Henry), who has ambition but no convictions, Hamilton believes in the revolution brewing during the late 18th century against America's oppressors, England and the British crown. He fights for freedom as George Washington's attaché and eventually becomes the first Treasury Secretary. Like all tragic heroes, his hubris cripples him, but his thorny relationship with Burr, whose dynamics mirror that of Salieri and Mozart in Amadeus, brings about defeat for both.
Miranda wrote a melting pot of music, infusing the score with samplings of funk, swing, rhythm & blues, rap, and hip-hop, making Hamilton sound otherworldly on the theater stage. For King George (Rory O'Malley), Miranda invokes the British Invasion genre, which is delicious irony. During the cabinet meetings, the method of a rap battle, where two opponents brag and insult each other through rap, turns a gathering into a blood sport. The delightful surprises are the ballads Miranda wrote, including "Helpless" for Eliza Hamilton (Solea Pfeiffer), and "Dear Theodosia", which humanizes both Burr and Hamilton as they sing to their newborn babies.
Every actor on stage invests vigorously in their roles. Luwoye is a very human Hamilton. His passion shines through but he doesn't gloss over his character's frustrating habits and less-than-noble actions. Henry treats Burr as a runaway train who can't seem to help crashing towards destiny. He displays with overt disgust how Hamilton, his character's nemesis, brings out the monstrous side of him. Jordan Donica is delectably extravagant as the snobby Thomas Jefferson. Pfeiffer is luminous as the steel magnolia Eliza. As her enigmatic sister Angelica, Emmy Raver-Lampman breaks everyone's heart with her song "Satisfied," where she admits her regret for passing the man she loves to her sister for marriage. O'Malley is foppish fun as George III. When he sings, his face turns redder than his crimson pants. Most compelling is Isaiah Johnson, with his booming voice and royal presence, as our nation's first leader, George Washington. His solos stop the show.
Director Thomas Kail keeps the actors always in motion with a frenetic energy to match Hamilton's tireless drive. Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography isolates body parts in a Bob Fosse style, but with a modern hypnotic spin.
Paul Tazewell's vibrant costumes fit the elegant time period, but offer the raw underbelly with some ensemble members costumed almost exclusively in period undergarments. Howell Binkley bathes the set in a gorgeous array of theatrical colors, while also isolating characters in stark light, like strong forms of punctuation, during particularly poignant moments. David Korins's set, with two revolving circles and rising staircases, keeps the actors in perpetual motion.
Part of what makes Hamilton so intoxicating is the euphoria emitting from the audience. Everyone is aware that they're in the presence of something special, something form-changing, and they thunderously show their appreciation. In return, the cast delivers a show that is a poignant reminder that history has its eyes on us all.