Review: ‘Hamilton’ more than lives up to the hype at Kennedy Center

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Hamilton' at Kennedy Center (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — “Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now. History is happening … and we just happen to be in the greatest city in the world.”

For the past three years, that lyric meant Manhattan, as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” turned Broadway upside-down. Here in the nation’s capital, fans memorized the entire soundtrack from afar, but not everyone could afford top dollar to see it on Broadway.

This past week, D.C. finally got a glimpse of “Hamilton” as it kicked off a three-month run at the Kennedy Center (June 12-Sept. 16), and not only does it live up to the hype, it exceeds it.

Based on Ron Chernow’s 2005 biography, the musical holds up Alexander Hamilton as the most underrated Founding Father. He fights in the American Revolution, pens the Federalist Papers to gain public support for the U.S. Constitution and serves as the nation’s first treasury secretary, before tragically losing his life in an infamous duel with political rival Aaron Burr.

The historic account caused Miranda’s creative wheels to spin with dramatic potential.

“Aug. 1, 2009, he sent me a G-Chat: ‘Hey, I’m reading this biography,” Broadway director and Alexandria, Virginia native Thomas Kail told WTOP. “He told me how this book really sparked for him and that he wanted to meet the writer and that he had an idea to write a song.”

Miranda tested that song in a White House poetry jam, which quickly became a viral video.

“What happened that night is what happened in real life,” Miranda told WTOP at the National Archives in 2016. “They laugh because it’s a crazy idea, then they get sucked into the story.”

Before long, “Hamilton” was the hottest ticket on Broadway, selling for over a thousand bucks.

“You don’t mess with people on their ‘Hamilton’ tickets,” star Leslie Odom Jr. joked with WTOP.

Likewise, D.C. folks flooded the Kennedy Center website in March trying to land tickets. Those who made it through will experience a one-of-a-kind songbook of rap, jazz and show tunes.

The show opens with the title number introducing Hamilton (Austin Scott): “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?” The next line answers that question: “The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter.”

The song cleverly wraps by introducing us to all of the other characters we’re about to see during the rest of the show, a “Citizen Kane” trick via Orson Welles: “We fought with him. Me? I died for him. Me? I trusted him. Me? I loved him. And me? I’m the damn fool that shot him.”

This, of course, transitions into “Aaron Burr, Sir,” introducing us to the show’s antagonist (Nicholas Christopher). We learn the origin of their rivalry as Burr offers unwanted advice: “Talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you are against or what you’re for.” Hamilton retorts: “If you stand for nothing Burr, what’ll you fall for?” Most importantly, the number includes a dose of ominous foreshadowing: “Fools who run their mouths off wind up dead.”

Similar foreshadowing comes in the next number, “My Shot,” as Hamilton raps, “I will lay down my life if it sets us free.” The upbeat jam is filled with underdog inspiration: “Hey yo, I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot.” It plays like a mixture of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and Rocky Balboa’s “Gonna Fly Now” as a penniless Hamilton insists, “I’m a diamond in the rough, a shiny piece of coal, tryin’ to reach my goal.”

The catchiest songs come from the Schuyler Sisters, including Hamilton’s eventual wife Eliza (Julia K. Harriman) and secret pen-pal Angelica (Sabrina Sloan). Together, these ladies deliver a pair of R&B gems, first with “The Schuyler Sisters,” a feminist call with “work” to be done (“You want a revolution? I want a revelation, so listen to my declaration”), followed by the swooning romantic joy of young love in “Helpless” (“Down for the count and I’m drowning in him”).

Still, the fan favorite tune is Britain’s King George (Peter Matthew Smith) singing “You’ll Be Back” in the form of a breakup song to the colonies: “I will send a fully-armed battalion to remind you of my love.” The crowd will surely scat along to his catchy “da da da da da.”

Other highlights include George Washington (Carvens Lissaint) belting “History Has its Eyes on You;” Thomas Jefferson (Bryson Bruce) and James Madison (Chaundre Hall-Broomfield) snapping to “The Room Where It Happens;” and Marquis de Lafayette (also Bruce) donating French ships for the ensemble battle cry “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down).”

In what other show can you hear rap diss battles between Jefferson and Hamilton? “Thomas, that was a real nice declaration. Welcome to the present, we’re running a real nation. Would you like to join us? Or stay mellow doing whatever the hell it is you do in Monticello!”

Hip-hop fans will pick up references to famous emcees, from Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” (“It makes me wonder how I keep from going under”) to Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” (“And if you don’t know, now you know”). Seeing as so much of the show is rapped, it might help to familiarize yourself with the soundtrack before you walk into the Kennedy Center.

All the while, the diverse cast is a constant reminder of certain constitutional contradictions. A founding hypocrisy is addressed with the line, “We’ll never be free until we end slavery,” followed by the timely quip, “Immigrants, we get the job done.” The Schuyler Sisters also offer a searing critique: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. And when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’ll compel him to include women in the sequel.”

It’s important to pinch yourself throughout the show, taking note of all the people of color in the cast, doing what “Black Panther” did for Hollywood a full three years earlier on Broadway. There’s a chance you’ll get so sucked into the story that you’ll forget all about it. Even better, younger viewers might not even notice at all, which is when we’ll know we’re making progress.

The diverse cast isn’t the only striking visual. Precision spotlights and a rotating stage create dynamic choreography, particularly in the climatic duel between Hamilton and Burr where time stops and the characters rotate as the bullet travels in slow motion across the stage.

You’ll fight tears as “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” wraps the show: “Every other Founding Father’s story gets told. Every other Founding Father gets to grow old. When you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story?”

In this case, Miranda just told Hamilton’s story to perfection, ensuring that the “10-dollar Founding Father” will live on forever, making history come alive for a new generation.

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Hamilton' at Kennedy Center (Jason Fraley)

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