Critic's Notebook: Lin-Manuel Miranda Puts a New Shine on 'Hamilton' in Puerto Rico
Reprising the title role in his blockbuster revolutionary musical about the Founding Fathers, the Tony-winning actor reveals greater depth of feeling, surprising moments of playfulness and enriched vocal skills.
Here's the headline news about Lin-Manuel Miranda's star turn in the Puerto Rico engagement of Hamilton that opened Friday on its title character's 262nd birthday: Not only is there no sign of rustiness in his performance after a two and a half-year absence, he's actually improved.
No less notable is the fact that he's surrounded by a sensational new company. They may have been assembled for the third U.S. tour — with Miranda reprising the title role just for this feverishly anticipated opening stint before making way for another actor in subsequent stops — but this is a knockout ensemble that could proudly open on Broadway tomorrow.
That in itself is remarkable given that the show bowed without a single public preview, playing its very first performance Jan. 11 at the Centro de Bellas Artes to an auditorium packed with San Juan's finest, along with notables and superfans from way farther afield.
Under Thomas Kail's impeccable direction, and with music director Alex Lacamoire back in the conductor's spot for this special occasion, the company already are working in a seamless groove, their characterizations amply fleshed out and their rapport expertly tuned. Opening-night nerves are notorious for causing the occasional slip, but aside from a dropped glove in one number, I spotted nothing amiss.
Even when executing choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler's more intricate dances, vigorously mixing up angularity and fluidity, the cast give the illusion of having performed these moves together for months.
If I had to nitpick, I'd say only that the sound mix could be amped up a notch. It's vital in Hamilton — one of the most audacious feats of condensed storytelling in musical history — that we hear every rapid-fire lyric. That need for clarity is admirably served, but the show felt just slightly underamplified. Or maybe it's just that I like to be positively blasted by Miranda's propulsive score.
One of the biggest of the spontaneous cheers that erupted from the audience during the show occurred, as it often does, on a line in "Yorktown" shared by Hamilton and his French comrade Lafayette: "Immigrants, we get the job done." This engagement definitely feels like a significant step in the evolution of a cultural phenomenon that reclaims U.S. history as a narrative belonging as much to people of color as to white America.
So seeing the show amid a sea of brown Latino faces gave a powerful charge to that metatextual element. "Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?" is one of the musical's key questions, after all. And at Friday's opening, so clearly the culmination of a passion project for Miranda to honor his Puerto Rican heritage, there was a tangible spirit of generosity, of giving something back to the people of a Caribbean island, a geographical kin to the one where Alexander Hamilton himself was born.
Perhaps that additional frisson partly accounts for the deepened accomplishment of Miranda's performance as the show's brilliant but flawed hero, a character whose relentless drive mirrors that of the musical's creator. There's a richness to his character shadings that feels like the result not just of prolonged association but of fresh consideration after a period of distance, maybe because the immigrant contribution to American life has never felt so under siege as in the Trump era. It's also a joy to watch Miranda cutting up in the role in appropriate moments. The whimsical little dance he does after receiving permission from Eliza Schuyler's father to ask for her hand in marriage is endearingly goofy, as is his comical swagger in the cabinet battles with Thomas Jefferson.
More astonishing, however, is his improved vocal prowess. Miranda has always been a hyper-energized rapper and magnetic performer but you'd hardly call him a great singer. Possibly as a result of his recent work on Mary Poppins Returns, his vocals are smoother, stronger, more expressive. Just hearing him on "It's Quiet Uptown," a song of lacerating beauty that redefines "unimaginable" loss, was a revelation.
It was obvious to expect a second-skin performance from the guy who built the role and played it for a year and a half from the show's pre-Broadway debut at New York's Public Theater. But this is more like a rebirth.
Having seen my share of mediocre tours with third-rate performers, I was equally thrilled by the caliber of the entire company. Even while following a template created by the original principals (a number of whom were in the audience opening night in San Juan), the cast put their own subtle stamp on their characters and songs.
First and foremost among them is the fiercely charismatic Donald Webber Jr., a former Broadway understudy for the role of Hamilton, who makes a superb Aaron Burr, the title character's antagonist. The original American political obfuscator ("Talk less, smile more / Don't let them know what you're against or what you're for"), Burr spends the show needled by Hamilton's flashy confidence and privileged proximity to George Washington. That annoyance swells into bitterest resentment once Hamilton finally crushes Burr's chances in a presidential election. In Webber's performance we feel that rage fester and grow like a cancer. Yet he's also a victim of his own arrogance, his remorse cutting deep.
Webber's vocals on "Dear Theodosia," a song from the orphaned Burr to his newborn daughter, have a sweetness and purity that underscores the deep conflicts within this man; and in the character's defining number, "The Room Where It Happens," Webber keeps a tight lid on Burr's simmering ambitions before exploding with stunning full-force intensity.
As the three musketeers flanking Hamilton through his formative years, Simon Longnight's beanpole physicality brings distinctive humor to Lafayette; Ruben J. Carbajal is a cocky charmer as John Laurens; and Brandon Louis Armstrong uses his short, stout frame to great comedic effect as Hercules Mulligan. Who doesn't love watching a hefty dude unleash such wild, sexy energy?
In the corresponding characters of their dual-track roles, those actors are equally strong and quite different. With his spectacular hi-top fade and goatee, decked out in costumer Paul Tazewell's glamrock-style purple satins and velvets, Longnight is a dandified hoot as Jefferson, his cabinet battle mic drop too sublime for words. Laurens is funny and ultimately heartbreaking as Hamilton's adoring son Philip, and Armstrong becomes a slyer, more refined operator as James Madison.
Isaiah Johnson's Washington wears his authority with absolute command, revealing a breathtaking vocal range on his farewell to politics, "One Last Time."
Julia K. Harriman makes an exquisite Eliza, her hopefulness and romantic excitement becoming highly infectious on "Helpless," an irresistible pop ditty that takes her and Alexander from first encounter through proposal to marriage; and she's blistering in her wounded scorn after her husband's infidelity is exposed in "Burn." No less impressive is Sabrina Sloan as Eliza's smart big sister Angelica, who gets one of the show's most intoxicating songs in "Satisfied," literally rewinding the narrative of "Helpless" to show how things might have played out if she had followed her own heart's first flutter. The harmonies of Harriman and Sloan with the charming Darilyn Castillo as third sibling Peggy are divine, notably on their fabulous intro number, "The Schuyler Sisters."
Watching these gifted actor-singers, you're reminded that Hamilton has also become a kind of military-industrial complex for performers of color, a rocket platform for a formidable series of discoveries that continues to grow as the Broadway production approaches its fourth anniversary. Together with the Chicago and London iterations and two previously launched U.S. tours, this now makes six productions, with more foreign markets surely to follow.
I saw the show a handful of times in its first year but hadn't been back since, and what continues to amaze me is the dexterity and incredible complexity of the storytelling, stuffing what could easily have been a full narrative into the opening number alone. The clever use of repetition and homophones in the lyrics is beyond compare, as is the bold eclecticism of Miranda's musical influences, from Broadway through Beatles to old-school rap. And the ongoing relevance to contemporary America in its treatment of politics and finance means this is a show unlikely to get old anytime soon. Certainly, its box office shows no sign of fatigue; to date, no seat has ever remained unsold in Hamilton's Broadway home, the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where grosses now are well on their way to $500 million.
There's never been anything quite like it where contemporary musical theater is concerned. Still, as widely celebrated as the path of this 11-time Tony winner has been up to now, opening night in Puerto Rico felt next-level unique, like history being made all over again.