Though there was zero mention of Alexander Hamilton’s time in Philadelphia when he served as America’s first Secretary of Treasury, locals who attended the Philly installment of Hamilton – the Tony/Pulitzer Award-winning gem from Lin-Manuel Miranda – treated this play’s titular character as a returning hero and an exemplar of democracy’s original zeal.
Then again, ever since the sensation of Hamilton: The Musical and its touring company was announced as part of the Kimmel Center’s Broadway Presents program, Philly has been in a fevered state, even submitting to lotteries for tickets to Miranda’s hip-hopping, multiracial take on U.S. history.
The first great thing to report is that the Philadelphia cast of Hamilton, in no way, acted or rap-sang in a manner resembling its Broadway originators.
In the dual roles of a prancing wiggy Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette, actor Bryson Bruce was no Daveed Diggs imitator. Josh Tower’s physicality and intonation as Aaron Burr did not ape the acting, singing or stance of Leslie Odom Jr., Edred Utomi was his own man – and did not mirror Miranda – in the titular role, though he could’ve been a tad more aggressive in the role.
Beyond the requirements of the script and its ever-active Ailey-meets-Tharp-meets-Basil choreography from Andy Blankenbuehler, each member of the Philly cast ably acquitted themselves while letting their personalities and self/skills shine through. That could not have been easy owing to the grand notoriety of its Broadway stage avatars.
While its Swing ensemble of singing dancers popped, locked and pulled breakdance moves on the turntable crafted by stage designer David Korins, each character played out their dynamic, individual arcs in relation to the “ bastard, orphan son of a whore/And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean/By providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?/The 10 dollar/Founding father without a father.”
"Make no mistake: despite an initial lack of aggression, [Edred] Utomi’s Hamilton manages to get up the nose and in the face of every character he meets."
As the stage revolved, reversed and rewound itself like a scratch-mixing DJ was one of the production’s keenest aspects, a moment of true inspiration and transference – “Satisfied” – sung mostly by Stephanie Umoh (as Angelica Schuyler, the woman who sadly introduced her sister to Hamilton) where all present action stops, life is relived, and the each second where heartbreak begins is revealed. That Umoh is one of the show’s best vocalists is no surprise as all of her songs could be Neo-soul smashes. That fact also was true for husky-voiced Olivia Puckett (a handsome take on the cloying ‘other woman’), and, the higher singing Hannah Cruz whose slight take on Hamilton’s wife Eliza comes down to being emotionally bruised then shattered on more than one occasion – all while maintaining pride, smarts, and ultimately a deep sense of forgiveness.
Despite being played, to an extent, as the ultimate ensemble piece (the bows at show’s end are singular and in unison), Hamilton certainly came with its standouts.
Like his character’s mantra of “waiting for it,” Tower’s buttoned-up Burr holds his tongue, his manners and his physicality until Act 2 when he bursts like a hot water pipe – incrementally – between “The Room Where It Happened” and the final betrayal of “The Election of 1800.” With all grace and calm gone, Tower’s Burr pulls a Salieri (to Hamilton’s cocksure Mozart) that alone is worth the price of admission. Even when he crooned softly about the error of his own ways through “The World Was Wide Enough,” you sense a small stream of steam coming from his ears, as Burr confessed his sins.
And make no mistake: despite an initial lack of aggression, Utomi’s Hamilton manages to get up the nose and in the face of every character he meets (especially George Washington, portrayed like a forceful creamy R&B star a la Paul Oakley Stovall) while ably rapping a prideful “My Shot,” as well as having portrayed the delicate poignancy of loss that was “It’s Quiet Uptown.”
Two supporting performances damn near stole the show from Hamilton’s principle characters. Peter Matthew Smith’s comically crooked wigs and ill-fitting royal get up as King George was only matched by his three tunes’ kitsch and chamber pop cool – think Mika – and his catty vocal nuances claiming complete ownership of the states before independence would have been reason alone to secede. His all-too-brief appearances weren’t merely quick comic relief, but, rather an indication of what true command the British had over the colonies, and the need for us to run from taxation without representation. When it came to prancing about, however, Bryson Bruce’s Franco-loving Thomas Jefferson (and Marquis de Lafayette) took the gateau.
A quick-footed dancer and an exemplary syllable-slapping rapper (e.g. “What’d I Miss” and “The Reynolds Pamphlet,” the latter with Tower and another impressive actor/rapper Chaundre Hall-Broomfield) Bruce’s Jefferson was magically pixie-ish. Plus, when he gets called out for owning slaves as the key to the South’s post-Revolutionary success, he slinks embarrassingly so far into himself, this Jefferson becomes more of a turtle and less of a swinging bachelor statesman.
With that, Philly’s take on Hamilton was worth the wait from Broadway to Walnut Street and worth every penny you’ll need in order to see it through its November run.
Hamilton | Now through Nov. 17. Ticket prices vary.. Forrest Theater, 1114 Walnut St. forrest-theatre.com/hamilton.html