If, as Oscar Wilde observed, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness,” then what can be said about a parody/satire that all but threatens to blow the original right out of the water?
When: Through May 28
Where: Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted
Tickets: $59 – $99
Run time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
That, unquestionably, is what you might be wondering after seeing “Spamilton,” Gerard Alessandrini’s altogether brilliant, hilarious, cliche-demolishing send-up of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mega-hit musical, “Hamilton” (and many other things Broadway) that has now commandeered the tiny stage of the Royal George Theatre’s cabaret space.
In addition, given the gargantuan talent of the Chicago performers in the show, you can only wonder what might have been going on in the minds of the actual Chicago “Hamilton” cast members who were part of Sunday’s opening night audience. If any further proof need be offered that the talent pool in this city is more than ready to perform the “primary source material” this inspired spoof should be it.
But first, a few words about Alessandrini, who has directed the Chicago edition of this hit Off Broadway revue. He is the long-reigning king of musical theater parody by way of “Forbidden Broadway,” under whose banner he has created 25 shows since 1982. The man is a satirical genius, but along with his total infatuation with (and encyclopedic knowledge of) the profoundly American art form of the musical — we will not talk about the recurrent British invasion, although he does — he also brings an irreverence, wit and pure wackiness that can stand up to everything from “West Side Story” and “Cats” to “Kinky Boots.” He also is so deliciously politically incorrect that you can only wonder how he has managed to survive and thrive in an arena so totally devoted to correctness.
While it is, of course, helpful to have seen “Hamilton,” it is not essential. After all, most Broadway mavens have memorized the CD by now, and watched every YouTube clip around, so they are familiar with the brand. And here’s the essential lesson of “Spamilton”: Every revolution (and “Hamilton” has certainly upturned many notions) inspires a counter-revolution, and Alessandrini has staged a little coup d’etat of his own.
Every element of “Hamilton” is skewered to perfection, with much of Miranda’s music appropriated beat-for-beat (legal under “fair use” laws regarding parody), but the lyrics and situations are mischievously altered. (Miranda, clearly complicit, is said to have seen the show in New York and exclaimed “I laughed my brains out!”)
One actor sings about the exhausting breakneck speed of the show’s tongue-altering rap lyrics (although Alessandrini is smart enough to point out earlier examples in “Company” and “The Music Man”). Others complain about the overwhelming amount of information Miranda has packed into his show. And choreographer Gerry McIntyre’s send-up of “Hamilton’s” highly stylized movement is a hoot, as are Dustin Cross’ savvy knockoffs costumes enhanced by a slew of terrific wigs.
The role of women in a male-dominated show (there were no “Founding Mothers” in “the room where it happened”) is deftly harpooned, with the final legacy speech of Hamilton’s wife, Eliza (who speaks about setting up orphanages in honor of her husband), sending the audience into a state of uncontrollable laughter by means of a reference to “Annie’ I will not divulge here. Equally withering (and hilarious as it is in the original), is King George’s take on “You’ll be Back,” in this case referring to the shift from all the musicals with gay protagonists to the largely straight characters in “Hamilton.” (Adam LaSalle, the show’s bravura piano accompanist, brings perfect panache to the role.)
Miranda’s adoration of Stephen Sondheim is a constant through-line, with the half-mad Beggar Woman character from “Sweeney Todd” in an ongoing quest for a ticket to “Hamilton.” The hype machine that has attended Miranda since the success of “Hamilton” is captured with a scene in the Washington Heights neighborhood celebrated in Miranda’s first Broadway musical, “In the Heights” — where now, even packages of toilet tissue are emblazoned with his image.
In this airtight ensemble, the actors’ uniformly clarion voices — which can, and do, reach multi-octave notes with breath to spare — are matched by exemplary comic flair. Each and every one of them are Broadway-ready, from Yando Lopez (a dead ringer for the boyish Miranda); to Eric Andrew Lewis (a fiery, muscular Aaron Burr); to Donterrio Johnson (an even larger-than-life Daveed Diggs as Lafayette and Jefferson); to David Robbins (hilarious as Benjamin Franklin); to Michelle Lauto (sensational as the Schuyler women, and in brief riffs as Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce and Gloria Estefan, all trying to finesse a recording with Miranda). Lauto should be fielding offers from near and far very soon.
And then there are the Broadway divas who feel left behind by “Hamilton” (Bernadette Peters, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Audra McDonald), all superbly conjured by Christine Pedi, the only non-Chicagoan in the cast.
As the cast joins to sing about knowing they will “not be in the film when it happens,” all you can think is that they might easily play in Chicago at least as long as “Hamilton” itself is here. That is more than enough.