Theater review: Saroyan Theatre was the room where it happens for a stellar national tour of the musical ‘Hamilton’
I’m sure the performance rights to the musical “Hamilton” will soon be extended beyond the professional level. When that day arrives, it will rock the theater world. You’ll be able to fill more high-school yellow buses than you can count with all the the D’Angeliques, Leticias and Marias transformed into Eliza Hamiltons. The lines of all the Darnells, Leshawns and Mannys will snake through lobbies of community theaters across the nation waiting to audition as Burrs and Jeffersons. It will be wonderful.
“Hamilton” is meant to be spread, like a gospel, and marketed as a financial boon, like a “Nutcracker.” Once those rights are released and the show spreads across the land, astonishing “Hamiltons” will be unleashed, and wretched ones, too. (Imagine what the hams out there will do with the role of King George.) And it will all be good, because no matter the costume budget, or vocal talent, or state of a theater’s lighting system, the underlying message and unrelenting drive of the show is simple. This country is not – and has never been – a place just for people of one particular ethnicity.
Related stories: In touring production of ‘Hamilton,’ Julius Thomas III plays the title character with passion, determination and a keen view of how a musical can impact a nation
Also: The Fresno ‘Hamilton’ lottery kicks off today (March 18). Here’s what you need to know.
And: Fun facts from backstage at ‘Hamilton’: 20 Things to Know about the national tour at the Saroyan Theatre
But let us pause for a moment, while we still have time, before all the other “Hamiltons” do their things, and pay homage to the “Hamilton” we have now – the professional version. The national tour at the Saroyan Theatre, which offered its official press night on Friday, is in top form.
There was no reason to expect otherwise. This company features a slew of veteran performers, including many from Broadway, and a design and production team dedicated to keeping the experience in the hinterlands at the same high quality as the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York.
This was my second time seeing the show in person. (Like most theater fans, I also saw the excellent streaming version, which I recommend for the subtitles, especially as a refresher for anyone who has trouble understanding live lyrics.) The first time was before the pandemic in Los Angeles. There I sat in the balcony, and my overall memories of the production are imprinted in wide scale: the scope of the music, the understated grace of the choreography, the power of the voices, and the precision and impact of the lighting design, whose creamy highlights and superbly timed, blinding transitions made me feel as if I were in a mountain storm while gazing down into a glorious, golden valley.
This time I sat in the orchestra (Row H), and that change in location gave me a different perspective. Not just because I was closer and was able to see more clearly the faces of the actors. It was more about my position to them. This time I was looking up instead of down, and I saw what Hamilton (a powerful and deeply moving Julius Thomas III) almost always sees on stage: cast members on the platforms encircling him above, a steady stream of them, wandering off and on, popping in and then out again. Always observing.
And it made me think of Hamilton’s awareness of his place in history, and the responsibility and scrutiny it detailed. Instead of a wide view, I felt more claustrophobic and, well, tethered to him on his journey. From the balcony, my view was broad and optimistic, from the orchestra, more tight and pensive.
Then again, I’m seeing the show several years later. The world changes, and so does the way art reflects that world. This time around, when King George (a deft Rick Negron, who plays the role with a more mature, maniacal certitude than other interpretations I’ve seen) reminds us, “Oceans rise, empires fall, it’s much harder when it’s all your call,” how could I not think of war in Ukraine and the uncertainty of what the U.S. should do? Indeed, when the dual duels over personal honor in the show unfold before us, was I the only one who thought of “The Slap” at the Oscars, and how, perhaps, we haven’t come quite as far from the time of the Founding Fathers in terms of anger management as we might think?
Lin-Manuel Miranda made an indelible Hamilton, but I’d argue that Thomas gives his version a sturdier personality and a more troubled soul. More stirring performances: Donald Webber Jr.’s Burr is mesmerizing; he mines the depths of his character’s ambition, jealousy and outright bewilderment at the continued good luck of his rival. Darnell Abraham, as George Washington, is a booming father figure.
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Victoria Ann Scovens offers a lovely blend between resilience and delicacy as Eliza, bringing emotional potency to the production. Her articulation, however, was so gentle that many of her lyrics devolved into a pleasant sounding mush. When she got to the end of her most poignant song, she completely swallowed the last word in “I hope that you burn.”
My other minor quibble was with Paris Nix’s interpretation of Thomas Jefferson, which I thought was too broad.
I could go on – and on – about the visual and choreographic grandeur of the show, from the starched white-and-khaki costumes to the fascinating hip-hop motions of the ensemble, whose impressionistic – almost oozing – movements remind me of liquid sculpture.
I’ll tell you, instead, about something I picked up on my second viewing that I missed the first time around. After King George and his ridiculously large crown make their impact in various solo numbers, the actor playing him (Negron, mentioned above), reappears dressed as a member of the ensemble, adding his considerable rhythm to the proceedings during brief appearances from the wings. (I looked him up. He danced in “Chicago”! And he’s the first Puerto Rican King George!) He remains in an ensemble costume even for the curtain call.
From royal tyrant to average man-on-the-street — from an uptight Brit to a dancing American — it’s another metaphor that people can change. This country still has a lot to work on in terms of equality of opportunity, but after nearly 250 years of our grand experiment in building a republic, there’s a transformative power here that isn’t found in many parts of the world. As “Hamilton” wows us, we can only hope that our best is yet to come.