TAMPA — There’s a scene late in the second act in which the entire emotional weight comes crashing down, and the hero of Hamilton turns briefly into villain.
Eliza Hamilton, who until now has taken a back seat merely to her husband’s political obsessions, is reeling from news of his infidelity. At the conclusion of Burn, a song that singes the heart, she feeds one of Alexander Hamilton’s old love letters into a kerosene lantern and walks offstage.
Gas fumes and carbon particulate floated out over a packed house. Musicals don’t usually engage the nose. That this one does did not come as a surprise, if only because by then the show has already pushed or broken so many boundaries, a little kerosene vapor in the nostrils feels as normal as a splash of cologne.
It’s not so much innovation itself that distinguishes Hamilton as the extent. A large cast moves almost as one unit under Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, though not in the same ways. Against the backdrop of David Korins’ wooden set, which looms like an unscalable wall with little cave-like cubbyholes here and there, ensemble dancers look like more like moving pieces in an elaborate puzzle than a chorus line.
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The most revolutionary thing about Hamilton’s colorblind casting, of non-white actors playing colonists we call “founding fathers,” is how quickly we forget about it. Seeing this group overthrow the British then draft the documents that fortify the Constitution changes the meaning of a notion like “integration” from different people in the same room to different cells in the same body, the DNA of a country.
The musical language — a 20,000-word blizzard that makes it possible to get through 47 songs in a little over two and a half hours — is very different, and a thrilling thing to see live.
The show, directed by Thomas Kail, documents Hamilton’s rise from his birth out of wedlock in the West Indies (“a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman,” nemesis Aaron Burr tells us in the opening number) to George Washington’s right-hand man, then secretary of the treasury. You think he’s going to fall for sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler and he does, but that’s a bit of misdirection.
Joseph Morales crackles with energy in the title role, believably delivering lyrics like, “I’m passionately smashin’ every expectation. Every action’s an act of creation!”
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A fast pace creates a density that leaves something for everyone. You don’t need to know Sanskrit to appreciate Eliot’s The Waste Land, nor do you need to know all about the battle of Yorktown to figure out that it’s what clinched the Revolutionary War. There’s room too for a sense of euphoria to be part of history and the hard work of governing.
As King George put it, “You’re on your own. Awesome. Wow. Do you have a clue what happens now?”
Jon Patrick Walker provides needed comic relief as the king. The cast overall is loaded, with standout performances in key moments by Ta’Rae Campbell and Erin Clemons as sisters Angelica and Eliza. Marcus Choi rendered a sober George Washington, the least exuberant of the historical figures because he bears the greatest burden. Kyle Scatliffe (who doubles as the Marquis de Lafayette in the first act) nails the comic aspects of Thomas Jefferson, the Johnny-come-lately who dances back from Paris to pick up where he left off (What’d I Miss?) but misses opportunities to demonstrate the flip side, his extreme cleverness. Maybe just barely keeping up with a rapid tempo had something to do with that.
There’s only one lead role, really, and two actors play it. The show’s emotional core rises and falls on Burr and Hamilton, mirror images who manage to get along for awhile because they share some of the same goals, if not the same values. Nik Walker might at first seem too low-key in the role, almost timid. He sings about his smoldering resentment throughout, and you can see that fire if you study his eyes. (But shouldn’t it be a little more obvious than that?)
It becomes clear, however, that this is a skilled actor’s choice. Keeping Burr’s flame low complements Hamilton’s firecracker zeal and ultimately proves more dangerous. It also gives Walker a place to go when he dominates in the show’s most electric number, The Room Where it Happens. Moreover, an inner reticence bordering on meek justifies the tenderness Burr and Hamilton display in Dear Theodosia, separate soliloquies to their children during wartime, a reminder that these rivals are also very much human.
Ideally, Hamilton hype shouldn’t count for or against this show. The questions that raises aren’t about Hamilton at all, but other well done musicals that would benefit if audiences purchased the soundtrack in advance or boned up on history. Compared with a hit of this magnitude, that’s probably not going to happen. Still, it’s worth asking: How much more would audiences gain from any show they approached with this kind of commitment and positive regard?
That said, the Broadway show earned every Tony and Pulitzer and Grammy it got, if not more. This touring production does not disappoint.
IF YOU GO
Runs through March 10 at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. Pricing varies by night. (813) 229-7827. strazcenter.org. Don’t have a ticket? There will be a digital lottery for each performance, with 40 $10 tickets available for every show. Digital lotteries open two days before each show. To enter, download the Hamilton app or visit hamiltonmusical.com/lottery.