TAMPA — I have a potentially embarrassing confession to make. I’ve been late to the party on two powerhouses of the theater world: “Hamilton” and “Hamlet.”
Of course I’ve been aware of the smash Broadway musical and Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy. But until recently, I never got to personally witness their greatness.
That changed in late December, when I saw “Hamilton” the night after it opened at Tampa’s David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. And, a couple of weeks later, the Shakespeare tragedy that’s often regarded as the best-written play of all time.
I knew about the hype surrounding Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning musical that’s racked up awards since it debuted on Broadway in 2015 — Tony, Grammy and Olivier awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a special citation from the Kennedy Center Honors. The highly anticipated musical returned to Tampa after years of pandemic rescheduling and runs through Jan. 22.
I’d heard bits of the soundtrack and seen snippets of the musical when it aired on Disney+. I even interviewed Edred Utomi, the actor playing Hamilton in the national touring company’s production.
But none of that could have prepared me for seeing it live.
Listen, I was a bit skeptical about the score’s blending of Broadway with R&B and hip-hop. I was afraid it could skew a bit corny. I was wrong. The show is outstanding.
“Hamilton” is an operetta, or in this case a hip-hopera. There is little spoken dialogue outside of the cleverly written dense rhymes, delivered with rapid precision by the cast. When the show nods lyrically to Notorious B.I.G. and Mobb Deep, I got chills thinking about how far hip-hop has come as a genre, especially because it was created in the U.S. during my lifetime.
Directed by Thomas Kail, with choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler, the show is a whirling spectacle of dancing and action, propelled by a rotating stage.
And, of course, there’s the work of the terrific cast: Utomi nails Alexander Hamilton’s swagger of a young, ambitious rebel who is never “Satisfied.” The lovely Alysha Deslorieux brought tears with her achingly beautiful voice as Hamilton’s wife, Eliza. With his powerful voice, Carvens Lissaint is a commanding George Washington. My jaw actually dropped after his “One Last Time.”
Tampa was in the house, represented by two cast members. Tampa native DeeJay Young, who gave a captivating performance as Aaron Burr in this particular engagement, is a graduate of Howard W. Blake High School for the Arts. Jon Viktor Corpuz, who played John Laurens and Philip Hamilton, attended the Patel Conservatory at the Straz Center.
It was a riveting night.
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A few weeks later, I was seated in an adjacent theater for “Hamlet,” another theater giant.
In the few years that I have been covering local arts, Jobsite Theater has been my main source for Shakespeare. The resident theater company of the Straz Center has been presenting the Bard’s works for 22 seasons, and I always find their productions a compelling introduction to these classics.
Somehow, “Hamlet” has always eluded me. I never read it in school and managed to even avoid the star-studded 1996 movie version with Kenneth Branagh. I was familiar with it, but I was not aware of the enormity of its centuries-long cultural impact.
To prepare, I read Wikipedia — the CliffsNotes of the internet — to get an idea of the plot and characters. I was relieved to learn that Jobsite artistic director David M. Jenkins had adapted the play to cut down the running time, which would have been more than four hours if left alone. Jenkins whittled it down to just under two and a half hours and wrote a very interesting blog post about his process.
Right away, I’m hearing quotes that I recognized but never realized were from “Hamlet,” ones that pervade the English language all these centuries later. I knew about “to be or not to be,” but was surprised by “to thine ownself be true,” “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” and “the lady doth protest too much.”
My mom, who went with me, remembered that the soliloquy “what a piece of work is man” was sung in the musical “Hair.” Another modern pop culture nod to “Hamlet”? “Star Wars.”
As Hamlet, Giles Davies embodies the young prince hell-bent on revenge. Besides being a brilliant actor, Davies is also a text coach, so his command of the dialogue makes for a natural, unencumbered performance that gives insight to the character.
I’ve always been intrigued by the character of Ophelia, and Katrina Stevenson’s gut-wrenching portrayal of her only deepened my interest. Moody music by Jeremy Douglass, who is also the stage manager of this production, sets the tone for suspense and tragedy.
For those who are also late to the “Hamlet” party (I know you’re out there!), Jobsite’s production is a highly entertaining way to catch up on a classic. Those who’ve already been ham for “Hamlet” will be equally impressed, I suspect.
It was an interesting exercise, seeing these two shows for the first time so close together. I’d be far from the first person to make connections between them. Aside from their influences on pop culture, it’s not a stretch to say that “Hamilton” itself is influenced by “Hamlet.” At their core, both shows’ protagonists are young and seething with emotion, traits that ultimately overtake them.
My takeaway after the experience I’m dubbing “Hamleton”? It’s never too late to be blown away by a classic.
If you go
“Hamilton” runs through Jan. 22. Tickets start at $49, which is subject to increase due to demand. David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N Macinnes Place, Tampa. 813-229-7827. strazcenter.org. “Hamlet” runs through Feb. 5. $20.50-$44.50. David A Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N Macinnes Place, Tampa. 813-229-7827. jobsitetheater.org.