“Hamilton” has finally come to Northern California, and the answer is unequivocally: Yes! It is that good.
In every way the first national touring production now at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco pushes superlatives over the cliff while exceeding overwhelming expectations.
The musical about the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton succeeds by taking a familiar concept (the chronological biography of a famous historical figure) and elevating every aspect of theater craft along the way. The extremely difficult-to-come-by tickets are offered at gasp-inducing prices (there is a $10 lottery though; see sidebar), and only you can decide if seeing the show would be worth the expense.
Despite suppressing anticipation of the experience, I could hardly sleep after seeing it, having received the extraordinary jolt only a transcendent communal live experience can offer.
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The production’s accolades are mountainous. After its sold-out Off-Broadway debut at the Public Theater in New York in February 2015, it moved to Broadway, generating historic advance box office sales. In 2016 “Hamilton” won 11 Tony Awards, along with the Grammy Award for best musical theater album and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The San Francisco production runs until Saturday, Aug. 5, when it moves down to Los Angeles’ Pantages Theatre for an Aug. 11-Dec. 30 run.
The spectacular theater-making becomes even more elevated by two inspired ideas. The book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda (inspired by the book “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow) are all based in hip-hop. The book is based in hip-hop, not just the music and lyrics. Rhythm pushes the show throughout. There are lovely ballads, R&B burners and a memorable, purely pop ditty, but a heightened hip-hop sensibility drives “Hamilton.”
References to Grandmaster Flash, the Beastie Boys and Notorious B.I.G. are tucked into lyrics, and two significant plot points are made through straight-up rap battles (Jefferson vs. Hamilton) using old-fashioned hand-held mikes. This is big-time commercial Broadway theater-making, and even if audiences don’t know exactly what they’re experiencing, they feel it.
Just as significantly, the audience sees something very different from the expected. The well-intentioned idea of color-blind casting gets blown up here, with all the leads (except for King George) played by actors of color. Three great white fathers – Hamilton, Aaron Burr and George Washington – are all played by black actors. The tableaux feels particularly cautionary now when glimpsing the makeup of the current presidential Cabinet. All performances are uniformly first-rate, the subtextual significance making its mark without underlining. This story and these characters are American history and belong to all of us. Such is the production’s seductive sway that it all feels right from the first moment, ingeniously assimilated by hip-hop’s cultural democracy and racial inclusiveness.
Miranda’s genius was in recognizing how the voice and attitude of hip-hop perfectly fit the energy and swagger of the young American upstarts in 1776 who had the radical idea of creating a new democracy. The now-iconic refrain from early in the play says it all: “Hey, yo, I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry, and I am not throwing away my shot.”
Leading as the brooding, overachieving Hamilton is Michael Luwoye, and he’s matched by Joshua Henry’s cooly confident Burr. Isaiah Johnson takes a show-stopping turn as George Washington, while Jordan Donica offers a jaunty strutting Lafayette/Jefferson. Solea Pfeiffer as Eliza Hamilton and Emmy Raver-Lampman as Angelica Schuyler are both essential elements as the main women in Hamiton’s life. Each character in her own way provides grounding conscience, emotional ballast and motivating sensuality. Mathenee Treco as Hercules Mulligan/James Madison and Ruben J. Carbajal as John Laurens/Phillip Hamilton are also standouts. In the midst of all this, Rory O’Malley’s smug King George effortlessly stole the show in each of his three comic gold appearances with variations of his “You’ll Be Back,” an irresistible, lilting pop ditty with an infectious chorus.
Thomas Kail’s kinetic direction rides the momentum of the score as the production feels constantly in motion, coming toward you. Andy Blankenbuehler choreographed the ensemble’s supportive movement and dance, which could be the production’s most underrated element. The 10-piece orchestra confidently swung through Alex Lacamoire’s varied, illuminating orchestrations.
There’s ambition, hope, tragedy and resolve in the characters of this All-American story, telling the struggles and triumphs of birthing our country. You can’t ask for anything more from entertainment than what this piece offers.
What: The the first national touring production of the Tony-winning Broadway musical “Hamilton,” book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Where: SHN Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco
When: Through Saturday, Aug. 5
Cost: The show has a few tickets for sale for some performances, mostly at more than $500 per seat. Some $10 tickets are available for all performances via a digital lottery, which closes at 9 a.m. the day before the performance. All entrants are notified of who won via email at approximately 11 a.m. the day before the performance; limited to two per person.