‘Hamilton’ delivers powerful performance

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Google searches for Alexander Hamilton likely are spiking in Grand Rapids this week as the Broadway blockbuster musical “Hamilton” hits the DeVos Performance Hall stage. The national tour of “Hamilton” staged its first performance on Tuesday and runs through Feb. 9.

“Hamilton” tells the story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton (Joseph Morales) in two acts. The first act traces Hamilton’s life from an orphan born in Nevis who comes to the United States with hopes of taking his shot and becomes involved in the American revolution as George Washington’s (Marcus Choi) right-hand man.

The second act follows Hamilton’s life after the revolution is won and the United States is in its infancy. Hamilton works diligently and prolifically to interpret the Constitution and develop the backbone of the country’s economic system.

But the musical is not all politics. It also delves into the complicated personal life of Hamilton, who weds Eliza Schuyler (Erin Clemons) but also likely has a relationship with her sister Angelica Schuyler (Ta’Rea Campbell) and later has an affair with another woman.

Hamilton meets Aaron Burr (Jared Dixon) early on in the first act, and the two share a complicated relationship and rivalry, which only intensifies in the second act when Burr switches parties and runs against Hamilton’s father-in-law, then teams up with Thomas Jefferson (Warren Egypt Franklin) and James Madison (Desmond Sean Ellington) to discredit Hamilton in Washington’s eyes.

All of this culminates in the famed duel that ends Hamilton’s life.

“Hamilton” is the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda. The musical debuted on Broadway in August 2015 and quickly gained critical acclaim for its diverse casting — the cast is made up primarily of people of color playing the country’s Founding Fathers — and for its hip-hop score and modern storytelling.

The touring production lives up to the hype. From the moment the first beat fills the performance hall to the final moments that see Eliza staring off into the sky, having impacted American history in her own right, the audience is mesmerized by the action taking place across the stage. Hamilton’s story is brought to vibrant life by an incredibly talented cast.

I was struck particularly by the movement — from the dancing to the way props are placed and removed from the stage to the turning floor that creates interesting juxtapositions between characters — every detail serves as a backdrop to the story.

The musical score could easily have felt contrived or heavy handed, but instead, it’s written firmly in the present day looking back at history, giving the lyrics an authenticity that works well. These are catchy tunes about American history with an unexpected density that creates a compelling story of the history of America.

The flouting of convention in casting also is incredible. Looking at the life of Hamilton and the Founding Fathers through the lens that Miranda has created is a powerful way to look at and think about American history. It also serves as a powerful message to today’s audience, reminding us that America was literally founded by immigrants.

In interviews, Miranda has said casting was an intentional decision to reflect America as it looks today and “to leave whatever cultural baggage you have about the founding fathers at the door,” noting, “We’re telling the story of old, dead white men but we’re using actors of color, and that makes the story more immediate and more accessible to a contemporary audience.”

This is what the future of theater should be.

Morales does an amazing job portraying Hamilton, but other notable performances are provided by Clemons, Campbell, Warren Egypt Franklin (Marquis de LaFayette/Thomas Jefferson) and Neil Haskell (King George).

Whether you know a lot about “Hamilton” or a little, you’ll want to buy a ticket to this show. You’ll probably find Alexander Hamilton to be a much more interesting man than your high school history class made him out to be. Of course, you also will want to check your history book, as some of the information conveyed in the story is not completely founded in fact.

See Broadway Grand Rapids for showtimes and tickets.

Photo courtesy Broadway Grand Rapids.

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