Hamilton is back at the Fox Theatre, and with it comes a sense that the show might already be dated. There has been a cultural earthquake since Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical — where men of color play the Founding Fathers — exploded into the national consciousness. As with most things in American society, it turns out race plays a key role — a topic that Hamilton flagrantly tries to provoke, soften and blur.
When Hamilton debuted at the Fox Theatre in 2018, the first wave of a national touring production, the show was sensationally fun and likely a novelty for most of the audience. As a live spectacle, it’s as much dance and movement as music.
But since then, many of the show’s rose-tinted attitudes have been shattered. Violent political protests in the street and a growing awareness that systemic racism — by the police, in housing, education, generational wealth — is more ingrained in American society than previously imagined. The show might be sending us a statement that, at some level, is no longer valid.
And in exploring race, community and authenticity, Miranda has hit more bumps. Just recently, the 2021 film version of his Tony-winning first musical, In the Heights, drew “a wave of backlash” as Vox described it, “over the film’s lack of visibly dark-skinned Afro Latinx characters — the very community the film purports to represent.” Fading as a leader in our national conversation on race and ethnicity, Miranda later had to apologize.
So, yes, Hamilton, running though September 26, is fast becoming dated, perhaps just as Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring seems to embody Roosevelt’s New Deal, or Grandmaster Flash’s The Message is a monument to the dystopia of New York City circa 1980. As playwright and composer, Miranda created timeless art within specific cultural circumstances, what future historians might call “Obama’s short-lived era of post-racial optimism.”
Meaning there’s a lot of cultural baggage to unpack, or not. Wednesday night at the Fox, the audience sported mandatory pandemic masks and cheered wildly in appreciation for every number. Despite the ubiquity of the music, and the Disney+ broadcast, the show still packs the house and commands big box office (Broadway in Atlanta’s top ticket price: $400).
As with any touring show that tries to replicate an original cast recording, there are abundant strengths and a few glaring weaknesses, and this performance overall was polished but not crisp. It is still sensationally fun.
The story tracks the legendary dueling duo, Alexander Hamilton (Pierre Jean Gonzalez) and Aaron Burr (Jared Dixon), introducing them as young revolutionaries, law partners, political rivals and, the essential dynamic, polar opposite personalities.
Gonzalez, with a lovely singing voice, doesn’t quite hold the center, which paradoxically fits the role. As an immigrant from the Caribbean, Hamilton arrived with no money, no family connections. His meekness makes the audience think this guy climbed to the top on brilliance and extraordinary work, not by the open doors that come from privilege. Dixon’s Burr, likewise, doesn’t radiate charisma, but in his moments as narrator and a driver of the action, he’s a sympathetic figure.
As in the touring production from 2018, our revolutionary heroes from Act 1 strain under Miranda’s detailed, highly compressed rap writing.
As the Marquis de Lafayette in Act 1, to take one example, Warren Egypt Franklin bobbed his head and thrusted his hips with confidence, but his rapping was convoluted and hard to understand. Still, Lafayette’s music, and his extravagant verbal pyrotechnics during the battle scenes, are as thrilling as anything from recent Broadway.
But as Thomas Jefferson in Act 2, Franklin was in his element, focused and funny, a force of personality. (It seems all performers other than Daveed Diggs, who premiered the role, have the exact same trouble with Lafayette.)
Desmond Sean Ellington, as brutish Hercules Mulligan and, later, suave James Madison, cuts a very appealing figure. Elijah Malcomb was charming as Hamilton’s best buddy John Laurens in Act 1, and perfect as the boy Philip in Act 2, a handsome lad trying to find his own place in the world.
As always, the Hamilton women are dazzling. Miranda clearly loves the female voice and he writes flattering lines for them. As Hamilton’s suffering wife Eliza, Stephanie Jae Park matured across the evening, offering “Helpless” — when she meets her future husband — with disarming innocence and, later, delivering “Burn” with white-hot scorn. She made you wish he’d rot in hell, too.
As Eliza’s sisters, Ta’Rea Campbell’s Angelica and Paige Smallwood’s Peggy (doubling as Hamilton’s mistress), have beautiful, soulful voices. Both have star power.
The camp role of King George III always delights the house, and here Neil Haskell sang his “Penny Lane”-like “You’ll Be Back” as snarkily as possible.
Best of the cast was perhaps Marcus Choi as George Washington — affable, commanding, with gravitas in his voice and an expressive face.
The dancing needs special mention, as both a stand-alone delight and a nimble commentary on the action. Andy Blankenbuehler’s gorgeous and sexy choreography offers psychological insight as the characters sing, and adds layers and depth — touching, humorous, wise — as the plot unfolds.
Near the end, in “Your Obedient Servant,” as Hamilton and Burr abandon their strained friendship and point pens, and then pistols, in each other’s direction, the dancers play the background role — but you can’t take your eyes off them.
A-dot-Ham’s “itemized list of 30 years of disagreements,” one per page, travels across the stage on a conveyor belt of dancers, till the final page flutters and teases into and out of the hands of A-dot-Burr. It’s a funny and cute moment, aligned with the tinkly, pirouetting music, till the emotions boil and it all becomes deadly real. And that’s the strength of the show: True to the best art, when you’re in it, regardless of politics, it seems timeless.