Staging an Australian production of a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical is always a daunting task, particularly when that show is one of the most acclaimed and successful musicals in Broadway history. The one benefit for local productions is knowing the audience likely have little first-hand experience with the version seen on The Great White Way. Sure, some may have heard the original cast recording. And a few may have even caught the show on a trip to NYC. But Australian audiences generally view Broadway musicals with entirely fresh eyes and no basis of comparison or level of expectation.
The Sydney production of pop culture phenomenon Hamilton does not have this luxury. After winning 11 Tony Awards from a record-setting 16 nominations, a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s opus arrives in Australia with a level of anticipation we haven’t seen in years. That’s only compounded by a live stage recording of the original Broadway cast being readily viewable since dropping on Disney+ in July 2020.
While anyone with a Disney+ subscription is able to view the original Broadway production at the tap of a button, there’s nothing that can match the pure magic of live musical theatre. With a spirited (one might even call them young, scrappy, and hungry) ensemble cast, lively choreography, and the genius of Miranda’s book, lyrics and music, the Australian production of Hamilton captures the brilliance of everything that made this thrilling musical such a roaring sensation.
For those uninitiated, Hamilton tells the true story of Alexander Hamilton (Jason Arrow), “the ten-dollar Founding Father” who rose to prominence during the American Revolutionary War and became one of America’s most unappreciated icons. As the “bastard, orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman,” Hamilton would ultimately personify the American Dream for immigrants after leaving his home on the Caribbean island of Nevis for a new life in New York in 1776.
After impressing fellow young revolutionaries Aaron Burr (a revelatory Lyndon Watts), Marquis de Lafayette (Victory Ndukwe), Hercules Mulligan (Shaka Cook), and John Laurens (Marty Alix) with his rhetorical skills (“Let’s get this guy in front of a crowd!”) and talk of rebellion against the British, Hamilton is soon elevated to the position of George Washington’s (Matu Ngaropo) aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War. Under Washington’s tutelage, Hamilton becomes an important figure in America’s bid for freedom.
As the jealous Burr slowly turns against his one-time friend, Hamilton takes a wife in the form of Eliza Schuyler (Chloé Zuel), creates a love triangle with his sister-in-law Angelica (Akina Edmonds), struggles through the country’s first political sex scandal, and butts heads with U.S. ambassador to France Thomas Jefferson (Ndukwe pulling double duty) over the United States assisting France in their conflict with Britain and its nefarious ruler, King George III (a scene-stealing Brent Hill).
While Australian musical theatre has a tendency for stunt-casting big-name celebrities to draw in crowds or importing performers from overseas, Hamilton has thankfully continued Miranda’s deft commitment to casting outside the typical sphere with a diverse ensemble featuring local performers of Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, and Māori heritage. Starring in this mega-production is clearly the chance of a lifetime for these young actors and they’re not throwing away their shot (I promise I’ll stop with the lyrical puns).
Taking on the role Miranda himself made famous, Arrow proves up to the immense challenge of leading the narrative with a nuanced and sharp performance as the intelligent yet flawed American visionary. Hamilton is a difficult character to crack, given his abundant arrogance and endless ambition could easily cast the true-life figure in an unsympathetic light. But Arrow finds the pathos in Hamilton’s empathetic vulnerability and his brimming self-assurance is more charming than it is grating. Arrow is handed the bulk of the show’s enormous dialogue-heavy book, which he handles with aplomb.
While Miranda casts a large shadow over Hamilton, the Tony Award-winning performance of Leslie Odom Jr. as Burr offers Watts even larger shoes to fill. In a star-making performance that audiences will be talking about for years to come, the phenomenal Watts makes the role entirely his own and steals focus at every possible turn. Burr is a complex character who wildly fluctuates between endearingly tender and bitterly jealous, and Watts is in total command of this complicated narrative arc. Watts brings the house down with Burr’s show-stopping number, “The Room Where It Happens,” and grabs your heart with the gorgeously moving “Dear Theodosia.” The Broadway production would be wise to snap Watts up when his run in Australia is over.
Elsewhere, Zuel shines as Hamilton’s long-suffering wife in a performance cemented by an equal measure of pain and fury. The vulnerable, naive Eliza is restrained for much of the show, but her rage finally unleashes in the second-act number “Burn” where Zuel has the audience hanging on her every word. Performing dual roles, Ndukwe dazzles as the energetic French crusader Lafayette before switching into his cheeky, dandyish portrayal of the narcissistic opportunist Jefferson.
Also performing double duties is the captivating Elandrah Eramiha, who pulls focus in every scene she’s in while effortlessly capturing both Peggy Schuyler’s youthful exuberance and Maria Reynolds’ sultry seductiveness. Ngaropo brings the necessary stoicism and dignity to Washington, particularly in his big number “One Last Time.” As expected, Hill threatens to steal the whole show with his occasional hilarious appearances as the petulant, malevolent King George, who constantly appears on the verge of a childish temper tantrum. Hill adds the right dose of silly levity at just the right moments in a show drowning in history and gravitas.
At this point, it almost seems redundant to heap more praise on a musical that’s been so overwhelmingly heralded by both critics and audiences alike. With its supreme mix of classic Broadway sensibilities with the pulsing urgency of rap, R&B, jazz, and hip-hop stylings, Hamilton was the breath of fresh air Broadway was crying out for. Written entirely by Miranda and inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton, the musical is undoubtedly one of the most innovative creations to ever bless the stage.
For those without basic knowledge of American history or the show itself, it may be mildly difficult to keep up with Miranda’s fast-paced lyrics and rap battles that fly from the mouths of the performers with furious speed. This was a production intended for an American audience who’ve grown up with Hamilton as a key figure in their country’s foundation, so it may be wise to familiarise yourself with some level of background information before the curtain rises. But everything is so gleefully entertaining and expertly performed that it barely matters if you find yourself slightly lost with the show’s quick pacing. If nothing else, it encourages you to nab a ticket for a second helping of one of the most rewatchable musicals in recent history.
There are minor quibbles to be made of the show’s refusal to acknowledge the active participation of slavery by the apparent heroes of this piece (Hamilton was far from the abolitionist he’s made out to be) and Miranda’s cherry-picking of Hamilton’s life that omits many of his major flaws (like how Eliza was already a married woman when Alexander came courting). But this is still a piece of semi-fictional theatre and one can’t expect entire accuracy when artistic license is in play.
Staged on a replica of the now-iconic Broadway set with a towering brick wall, wooden gangways, and a series of ladders, Hamilton keeps the production design simple and the colour palette distinctly muted to allow the focus to remain on the performers and Miranda’s words. A double revolving stage offers flair to Andy Blankenbuehler‘s vigorous choreography, all performed by a sparkling ensemble who are clearly having the time of their lives, particularly after being stuck at home for the last year.
As the only currently active production of Miranda’s musical in the world, Hamilton reminds us how lucky we are to be in Sydney right now. Live theatre is back in Australia, and we are being gifted one of the best musicals ever created. Everything you’ve heard about Hamilton is true. The hype is real. This is a musical not to be missed. Even if you’ve caught the live Broadway recording on your television, it cannot compare to seeing Miranda’s masterwork performed right in front of you. You’ve got to be in the room where it happens.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Hamilton is running at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre until 5th September. For more information and to purchase tickets, head HERE.
Reviewer attended on 26 March 2021. Header Image: Daniel Boud