Oh to be in the room where it happens! Cooglife was! We sat down to see the show during day two of “Hamilton’s” stay at the Hobby Center, and we are hyped to tell you all about it.
A musical about one of the United States’ founding fathers may not strike you as the best idea for a show, but writer-composer Lin Manuel-Miranda makes you care by putting Alexander Hamilton on a hero’s journey guided by the sound of hip-hop and an orchestra sharp enough to cut any glass ceiling.
As a teenager, I remember falling in love with the musical through memes and clips on Tumblr, long before the musical theater geeks adopted it, back when audience members at the White House laughed when Miranda presented the titular song at an Obama-era showcase. Theater lovers and minorities alike rejoiced when the musical took off. “Hamilton” was everywhere, people that never cared about the stage before started to wonder if maybe theater could be for them too. Kids in theater clubs across the nation were ecstatic, especially in schools like mine. Suddenly, the students that hoped to make a career on stage who thought they’d forever be relegated to the chorus, a maid, “A Raisin in the Sun” or “West Side Story” began to imagine a greater world, one where they may even get to play President George Washington.
Fast forward to 2022, and the world is tentatively beginning to approach a new normal following years indoors. Live theater has also made a return. If you had any doubts on whether or not “Hamilton” still has the same pull and relevancy with audiences as it did before the pandemic, you can put them to rest.
The night Cooglife was in the audience, the Angelica Cast took the stage. The show started quite promptly. As soon as the lights went down, Josh Tower as Aaron Burr hopped in from stage left and started the titular song.
The first few songs in this sung-though show blast the audience into 1770s New York, catching them up to who their characters are and how they connect to the main characters. They literally wait in the wings’ as they sing it, not holding anything back.
The first taste of rap and hip-hop enters the show lightly in “Aaron Burr, Sir” as Hamilton’s motley crew introduces themselves. It trickles in the way you focus on a bar conversation a few tables away. This is conveyed through excellent use of the stage and minimal props. There is a table, a bench and chorus members milling about near the wings the way one only does when drinking. The changes are so quick and effortless yet effective in portraying the location, praise must be given to whoever did the blocking. This trend in excellence continues all throughout the show. The audience is taken all across New York, into battlefields and over decades. Yet the most dramatic change to the stage is the movement of a staircase before the end of Act 1.
Another trend established early on is through the choreography, first seen in “My Shot.” The music is explosive, and the dance throughout has similar energy. The dancers move tighter and tighter, turning focus to the singer before exploding at a beat drop or the start of the chorus. It’s not overused, but certainly noticeable to anyone that delights in motifs.
In “Hamilton,” the stage is the star of the show. It’s dressed simply enough to be an excellent canvas for the lighting techs and chorus to paint on, but textured enough to clearly be a relic of the 1770s colonies. The stage really gets to flex its muscles during “The Schuyler Sisters.” The sisters weave between each other, allowing the stage to assist their footwork. Then they runway-walk down the Manhattan city streets, forever remaining center-stage thanks to the moving circular piece in the stage. It’s an iconic moment, and it gives only a taste of the ways this device will be used during the rest of the play.
John Deveraux enters to roaring cheers as the mad King George, adding trills and flourishes to his 18th century English accent. He is poised and proper, dropping tiny eye rolls and shimmies with perfect comedic timing. The crowd hadn’t laughed harder at any other point, clearly solidifying his song as a high point of the night.
“Hamilton” the musical was a smash hit from the start, making the original cast inseparable from their characters. After a stint of Broadway and a Disney+ special, the new cast has huge shoes to fill. Initially, it’s a shock to see anyone other than Lin Manuel-Miranda, Leslie Odem Jr., or Phillipa Soo in the main roles. But these misgivings quickly melt away as you realize how well-cast the roles are. In certain characters, one might argue that the current casting is (dare I say) better.
With exposition over, the musical transitions into the darker side of 1776 with “Right-Hand Man.” The stage lights, up until now bright and cheery, sweep the stage in dark blues, almost mimicking light as seen underwater as the chorus sings of the 32,000 troops in New York Harbor, sent straight from the mighty British navy. It’s a dreary situation, and you can taste the ominous fear the colonists may have felt with the threat of war in their harbor.
Things take an upward turn as soon as the chorus starts to announce the arrival of the general. Paul Oakley Stoval enters as General George Washington, towering beyond everyone else on stage. It is clear who is in charge, and easy to trust this man will lead the nation out of peril and into victory. Stoval does an outstanding job in this role. The best way to describe the wisdom and strength he injects into his lines is like watching a father. The good kind of father, the kind to lead and defend.
The writing is expert in complementing the best music for the songs. Rap is largely left to the men. It goes well when narrating battles, invoking anxiety, and rushing through rich historical details. The ladies shine when they sing, complimenting light and airy music in “Helpless” before descending into the sweeping “Satisfied.” Of course, this can only go so far without the right singers. Luckily, the Angelica cast navigates the songs expertly. Listening to Zoey Jensen as Eliza in “Helpless” is one of my favorite examples. She adds so much texture to everything she sings, punching words to convey nerves, then soaring to celebrate a moment after. She doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to emulate the show’s first Eliza but manages to both be the Eliza we love and add her own distinct flair.
A lot happens between “A Winter’s Ball,” “Helpless” and “Satisfied,” and the cast works overtime to move around the singers of each song to take the audience from a ball to the Schyler home, to a church wedding. Chorus members weave letters between Alexander and Eliza all over the stage and between staircase banisters, managing to both be important elements in the background yet not distracting from the focal point on stage.
A jewel of the night is Stephanie Umoh as Angelica Schyler when she performs “Satisfied.” The lights change with the chorus members, moving backward to convey a jump back in time. The stage turns around Angelica in the center, watching as the wedding scene dismantles and we go back to the fateful ball where the sisters first met Alexander Hamilton. We are treated to a heart wrenching story of secret, unrequited love with an ending that doesn’t often happen. Angelica demonstrates true love and strength by staying quiet rather than throwing everything away for romantic love. Family comes first to her, and the sentiment resonates with the audience, many moving to the edge of their seats. I also love how her song has strong rap portions combined with her excellent vocals. This makes sense, as Angelica’s character screams of a drive, wit, and confidence akin to that of an early feminist. Many of her traits would have been considered traditionally masculine, and having her be the only female cast member that raps makes sense with her character in context with the show.
A fair competitor for the top prize is Tower’s performance of “Wait For It.” We the audience are meant to sympathize with Hamilton as our protagonist, agreeing every time he expresses frustration with Burr’s strategy of silence and patience. “Wait For It” explains why Burr is the way he is. Any reasonable person will see the great value and wisdom there lies in keeping one’s cards close to their chest.
“Guns and Ships” is when the war of independence really starts to pick up. Hamilton is back at Washington’s side following a stay home. The song is quick and uplifting, and an excellent call to arms. David Park joins the Americans once more like the Marquis de Lafayette, ready to assist in battle and call the French for aid. The quickest parts of his rap are slightly lost in annunciation, but the passion and message is clear. This is not to fault the actor at all. A convincing French accent is hard to nail, rapping in English in a French accent and making every word clear is almost too much to ask.
Another main driver in the musical is the orchestra with special emphasis of praise being directed at the violins. “Yorktown” is particularly fiery and quick. Tyler Belo explodes onto the scene as Hercules Mulligan, his energy matched by violins fighting to keep up. A whole musical could be made just about Mulligan, an Irish-American member of the Sons of Liberty that dedicated years to George Washington as a spy during wartime. Although this is only touched on in the musical, Belo embodies the character’s energy in exactly the way any historian would dream.
Next to last in Act I is “Dear Theodosia,” a ballad as tender and delicate as a newborn. We watch Burr and Hamilton side by side, their halves of the stage bathed in different shades of light. The audience sees what the characters can not, that Hamilton and Burr and more similar than they think, two sides of the same coin.
Things pick up at the end of Act I as Hamilton is called to help draft a new nation. Eliza feels neglected, conflict arises between him and Burr, and Hamilton finds governing is harder than fighting.
The second act sees David Park and Tyler Belo take on secondary characters, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison respectively. Park was born for the combination of roles he was given. The explosive rage and directness he played Lafayette with turns into a sly, sassy bounce when he turns into Thomas Jefferson.
Yana Perrault also takes on a second role in Act II, this time entering as Maria Reynolds, seducing a lonely, overworked Hamilton with her smooth, sultry notes in “Say No To This.” Upon first seeing her on stage as Peggy Schyler, I couldn’t help but wonder why they had put Perrault in such a small role when her voice screamed for a more prominent place. Hearing her as Maria cleared up my misgivings at once. She makes those notes sound effortless, and enriches them with excellent texture and acting. She and Edred Utomi (Hamilton) play off of each other deliciously. The look of disgust he gives her when she sings she is helpless, calling back to a song associated with Eliza exclusively, does an excellent job of conveying some of the feelings of guilt and blind hate associated with an affair. So much happens in just one song, and the message is delivered on a silver platter.
The next few songs are spent discussing the constitution, the capital, the treasury, and all of the nitty-gritty details that can tear a group apart through infighting. Jefferson, Madison and others are sick of Hamilton and resolve to prove corruption by following his spending. Instead, they stumble upon payments to his affair partner and hold it over his head. Rather than face blackmail again, Hamilton chooses to expose himself. Of course, this leads to a huge rift with Eliza.
A heartbroken Eliza declares she will ‘erase herself from the narrative’ in “Burn,” lighting love letters on fire as she sings the mournful ballad.
What reconciles Alexander and Eliza in a roundabout way is not an apology or a grand gesture, but a tragedy. The musical reprises “Blow Us All Away” to present Phillip Hamilton, all grown up. The cheery song, filled with plenty of youthful swagger and attitude, shockingly darkened when Phillip is shot in a duel. The acting is amazing. Utomi’s face washes with fear and regret. Hamilton had approved of the duel, even going as far as lending his son his dueling pistols for the occasion. It must have felt like having a hand in your own son’s death, and Utomi conveys it perfectly. He harmonizes perfectly with Jensen as she flies into the doctor’s office. Confusion, desperation, the helplessness that comes with grave injury, it all spills over the actors perfectly.
Jon Viktor Corpuz (Phillip Hamilton) reverts to a version of Phillip closer to the little boy he played in Act I when his mother arrives at his side. The darkness begins to ebb closer to the actors at center stage as Phillip’s parents tighten around their son. Eliza’s cry upon his death is chilling, and the audience was left in tense silence.
People only dared to breathe again at the first notes of “It’s Quiet Uptown.” The room is still tense, however, as Hamilton must have been around his wife. He walks on eggshells surrounded by a fog of depression, slowly edging closer to a cold and heartbroken Eliza. Then, with the simply taking of his hand, she conveys forgiveness. There is a collective sigh of relief in the audience, but it doesn’t compare to what Utomi conveys on stage, bending over with sobs of relief and gratitude. I can not highlight how good the acting on his part is all throughout the play, portraying certain emotions with such accuracy in a way only people that have been there can understand.
The peace lasts only a short time before conflict brews between him and Burr, which leads to Burr challenging Hamilton to a duel. The rotating stage gets to shine one last time, rotating the duelists until horizontal to the audience, stopping when Hamilton (as his son) points his gun to the sky, and Burr fires to kill. A chorus member guides the bullet from the end of Burr’s gun to Hamilton’s heart, and the stage lights change suddenly to give us a glimpse into Hamilton’s mind during his last moments.
The mood is somber, yet electric. The only thing I can think to compare it to is the in-between place, the forest is “The Magician’s Nephew” by C. S. Lewis. The light is warm and peaceful, but Hamilton claws to stay, wrestling with his own mortality and whether or not he has done enough with the time he had. It’s heartbreaking, preying on some of my own personal fears about legacy and accomplishment. But as history dictates, the bullet hits its mark, and Hamilton is rushed back across the river from Jersey to New York for medical attention. He dies with Eliza and Angelica at his side.
The show concludes with “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” tying up loose ends with some final words from the main characters. The most touching part is when Eliza puts herself back into the narrative, telling the audience how she solidified her husband’s legacy, engaged in abolitionist rhetoric and started the first private orphanage in New York City. At the end, the world tells Hamilton’s story, he gets his grand legacy after all.
In essence, “Hamilton” is a story of immigrants, for immigrants. We are a hodge-podge of a nation where most don’t even have a claim to the American continent, and those that do are often relegated to reservations or persecuted for crossing borders in search of opportunity. The musical was much needed, in this climate more than ever before. Disillusioned with global politics and home-grown racism, many have found it trendy to hate being an American. On the other side of the coin, some of those that proclaim proud patriotism do it for reasons our founding fathers wouldn’t recognize, reasons dripping with hate and elitism. “Hamilton” is a call back to what independence meant to the first generation of Americans, and the diverse group of people that fought for it, inviting us to take pride in our collective heritage and continue to work towards its betterment.
It’s not a mistake the story of Alexander Hamilton was so relatable to Lin Manuel-Miranda, a Puerto Rican immigrant with a penchant for the pen. Nor is it surprising how it resonated with the youth. There is a lot I see reflected back at me each time I revisit this musical. Young, scrappy and hungry, eager to rise up with nothing but a pen to latch on to. Write for what you believe in, to defend the people and the nation you love, to make what is broken better. Write yourself out of poverty and food insecurity and into a university, all expenses covered by scholarships. Make sure you’re the smartest in the room, write like you’re running out of time. Say yes to every opportunity, do it better than anyone else. The immigrant’s work ethic isn’t something that just ‘comes with the race,’ it’s not a character trait. It is a side effect of knowing that if you don’t swim you’ll drown. Being the first means there’s no one ahead to extend a hand to help you forward.
“Hamilton” the musical is a show that revived interest in theater, brought the stage down to the people, invited Americans to take pride in their nation, and uplifted daughters and sons of immigrants to the heights they deserve. This current cast does the story justice, and the tech team does an excellent job of dressing the stage, suspending disbelief, and transporting an audience across space and time. Do yourself a favor and go see “Hamilton” at the Hobby Center before their Houston stay is up. You may walk away with more than just a fun night out.
Feature photo courtesy of “Hamilton” at the Hobby Center