REVIEW: ‘Hamilton’, Victoria Palace Theatre

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Hamilton‘, Victoria Palace Theatre

   ‘Hamilton’ – the musical phenomenon sweeping the globe (taking all the awards with it).

  Followings its debut in New York in 2015, Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s ‘Hamilton: An American Musical’ reopens the West End’s newly refurbished Victoria Palace Theatre. The show unapologetically breaks the conventions of musical theatre, rewriting the rules, and its diverse cast and pro-immigration message make a powerful statement in today’s world of simmering racial tensions, raising a glass to the truth that “all men are created equal”.

  Reflecting popular culture, the musical fuses a mix of musical styles – hip-hop, rhythm and blues, pop and soul, to name a few – achieving critical acclaim and unprecedented box office success.

Jamael Westman (Alexander Hamilton) and the cast of Hamilton. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

  Inspired by Ron Chernow‘s biography, the musical follows the life story of Alexander Hamilton, founding father of America, charting his rise from “bastard, orphan, son-of-a-whore” to George Washington’s “right hand man” and his appointment as America’s first Treasury Secretary. Charting his personal triumphs and failings, the musical explores the mark Hamilton made in America’s politics as an immigrant, and his subsequent fight for American independence. Importantly, the audience gain an insight into Hamilton’s relationships – his turbulent relationship with politician Aaron Burr, his friendships with fellow revolutionaries (slavery abolitionist John Laurens, flamboyant Frenchman Lafayette and tailor’s apprentice Hercules Mulligan) and his marriage to Elizabeth Schuyler.

  Rare to find a cast so equally strong across the board, the ensemble of ‘Hamilton’ showcases some of the best talent this country has to offer. Collectively and individually, the cast give knockout performances, their vocals flawless, each one possessing an outstanding musical ability.

Rachelle Ann Go (Eliza), Rachel John (Angelica) and Christine Allado (…and Peggy!) in Hamilton. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

  Recent RADA graduate Jamael Westman follows in Miranda’s footsteps as leading man Alexander Hamilton and, though a tough act to follow, Westman is more than capable. “Young, scrappy and hungry”, he embodies the intensity and political prowess of this revolutionary, his performance reflecting a man “desperate to rise above his station”. Sifiso Mazibuko excels as Aaron Burr, the story’s narrator. Miranda explains that Burr’s musical numbers, ‘Wait for It’ and ‘The Room Where It Happens’, are two of the best songs he has ever written, and Mazibuko’s renditions do them justice, and then some. Dubbed by history as the villain of this story, Mazibuko addresses this balance, his emotionally charged performance encapsulating the humanity of a man envious of his fellow man’s rise. Obioma Ugoala was the “very model of a modern major general” as George Washington, an authoritative figure who looms large, with a commanding stage presence.

  Despite appearing on stage for approximately eight minutes, Waylon Jacobs‘ King George dazzles, shining as brightly as the jewels atop his outrageously tall crown. His performance one of comic genius, he gleefully reflects on the political turmoil America will face if they continue on their path to independence from Britain.

Obioma Ugoala (George Washington) in Hamilton. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

  Cleve September, Jason Pennycooke and Tarinn Callender make up the “bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists”, John Laurens, Lafayette and Hercules Mulligan respectively, a rowdy group of swaggerers. An utter joy, their singing, and rapping in particular, is astounding. September’s Laurens is magnificent, his later portrayal of Philip Hamilton heart-rending. Pennycooke’s Jefferson, a dead ringer for singer Prince in his iconic purple rain video, is the picture of finesse. Rachel John, Rachelle Ann Go… and Christine Allado! as the Schuyler sisters are delightful, inspiring with their portrayals of such strong, independent women. 

  A large factor of the musical’s appeal is the diversity of its cast, reflective of the society we live in. The ‘whiteness’ of the original founding fathers is overlooked, automatically ensuring the production is accessible to a contemporary audience, and we see the world for what it is – a huge melting pot of integrated races, all of whom have a strong claim on the history of their country. A mirror image of today’s world, this inclusive production has a universal value.

Jason Pennycooke (Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson) and the cast of Hamilton. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

  The set, large wooden scaffolding against exposed brickwork, and the red, blue and white lighting, the colours of “Betsy Ross’ flag” are, although minimalistic, particularly effective and enhance, rather than detract from, the show’s focal message. Andy Blankenbuehler‘s choreography attributes to the show a sharp, military precision. The traditional costumes (neutral-coloured corsets and jodhpurs, with the occasional vibrant velvet frock) juxtaposed with it’s heavy hip-hop influence, highlight the fact that the key themes of the production – politics, revolution and immigration – remain a great and relevant subject for discussion, appearing in the headlines of today on a regular basis.

  The nimble rhetoric and expansive political vocabulary contained within its lyrics ensures the production retains a certain density and, with the help of a little dramatic license, follows a strong narrative arc. Miranda presents the audience with an exploration of the life of this extraordinary historical figure, finding a firm grounding in true events, in this cultural retelling that breathes new life into a topic that might otherwise prove uninteresting. A far cry from a dull political drama, this exciting production fuses sung dialogue with rap, and is nothing short of a theatrical revolution, evident in its rising popularity. An empowering production, the audience are encouraged to “rise up”, to work harder and smarter to change our circumstances for the better.

Rachelle Ann Go (Eliza) and Jamael Westman (Alexander Hamilton) in Hamilton. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

  When it comes to creating musicals, Lin-Manuel Miranda, founding father of the modern-day musical, “doesn’t hesitate. He exhibits no restraint… he keeps winning… He changes the game, He plays and he raises the stakes”. Master lyricist and agile wordsmith, Miranda’s “skill with a quill is undeniable”, his talent inexhaustible. The Shakespeare of our generation.

  ‘Hamilton’ ‘smashed every expectation’. A bold new musical, completely “inimitable”. A breakthrough, a game changer, a revolution, call it what you will. This is a show that will go down in musical theatre history, with Lin-Manuel Miranda reigning supreme.

First look at the London cast of Hamilton
‘Rise up!’ with the cast of Hamilton. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

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