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Review: Hype and hoopla justified for ‘Hamilton’ in Chicago

More tickets for 'Hamilton' in Chicago go on sale Tuesday. | Joan Marcus

On the very same night that the two candidates running in one of the more grotesque presidential contests in this country’s history engaged in their third and final television debate, a musical by the name of “Hamilton” (you may have heard of it) had its official opening at Chicago’s PrivateBank Theatre in what marks the show’s first post-Broadway edition. To cut to the chase (and this “Hamilton” moves like a comet): This is one time where all the hype and hoopla is not only justified, but doesn’t come close to suggesting the grandeur of the work on stage.

Should this vivid, fluid, endlessly ingenious, emotionally searing vision of the genesis of our nation — with all its passion, argument, competition, ambition, horse-trading, legacy-making, brain power, and, yes, a career-scarring sex scandal and “gentlemanly” gun violence, too — make us nostalgic? Or should it serve as a reminder that immense turmoil was ours from the very beginning, involving matters of slavery, immigrants, debt, states’ rights versus federal power, foreign alliances and more? And that despite it all, this unique “new world” experiment managed to survive, and prevail?

Perhaps the way to approach “Hamilton” — and so much has been written about the show since its debut at New York’s Public Theatre in February 2015 that its title alone has become its own form of solid gold cultural currency — is to simply revel in its brilliance. It might just be best to be continually dazzled and moved by the seamless meshing of musical and verbal styles in composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sung-through score of close to three dozen songs (each one a blazing jewel), and to be drawn into the fluid, speed-of-light, circular motion of the show’s complex storytelling, a seamless weave of the talents of director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, music director and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire and the high-intensity performances of a precision-tuned, virtuosic ensemble full fervency and panache.

Highly recommended
When: Through Sept. 17, 2017
Where: The PrivateBank Theatre,
18 W. Monroe
Tickets: $65 – $180
Info: (800) 775-2000;
Run time: 2 hours and
45 minutes with one intermission

For Miranda, who based his musical on Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, the revolution clearly was not meant to be televised (apologies to that earlier spoken word master, Gil Scott-Heron). It was meant to be the stuff of theater — a living, breathing, ever-evolving organism. And it was not just to be about the American Revolution “in capital letters,” but about Miranda’s own revolutionary act of racially and ethnically flipping the identity of the Founding Fathers and finding the ideal balance between contemporary rhythms (by way of hip-hop), and the enduring lyrical lure of Broadway, in order to make it sing. And if all this begins to sound supremely patriarchal, be assured that the women in this show more than hold their own.

The Schuyler sisters, played by (from left), .......Karen Olivo, Ari Afsar and Samantha Marie Ware, in the Chicago production of the Lin-Manuel musical, "Hamilton," at The PrivateBank Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The Schuyler sisters, played by (from left) Karen Olivo, Ari Afsar and Samantha Marie Ware, in the Chicago production of the Lin-Manuel musical “Hamilton” at The PrivateBank Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

It all begins, of course, with the now famous chant that encapsulates Hamilton’s origins and asks: “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?”

So how did it all happen in just 47 years that ended with “a shot”?

As Miranda suggests, Hamilton (Miguel Cervantes, an actor of small stature and immense fire, who captures his character’s cocky youth and ever-deepening maturity with great skill) was the smartest and most driven of self-starters who arrived in New York at a fortuitous moment, studied law and, unlike his friend-turned-nemesis Aaron Burr (Joshua Henry, a commanding presence who makes envy palpable), was never afraid to take a stand rather than waiting to see which way the wind might blow.

A man who “could never be satisfied,” Hamilton also quickly intuited that the Revolution would be the vehicle for his upward mobility. And no less a force than Gen. George Washington (a remarkable turn by the magisterial Jonathan Kirkland) recognized his talent and became his “daddy” figure, as his jealous enemies so mockingly described the relationship. As president, Washington exhibited a genius of his own when, after two terms, he chose to step down, understanding that such a transition would be key to democracy. It is a move that England’s King George (Alexander Gemignani, hilarious in sophisticated camp mode) considers incomprehensible.

Miranda charts Hamilton’s appointment as the first Secretary of the Treasury and his feverish writing of a major portion of “The Federalist Papers,” which argues for a strong central government — a viewpoint that put him in direct conflict with Thomas Jefferson (a wonderfully obnoxious Chris De’Sean Lee, who also plays the comically self-assured Marquis de Lafayette, a great ally during the Revolution who Hamilton later turns his back on.)

The genius of the musical is how fully engaging and immediate all this history turns out to be, with the emotional heat emanating from the presence of the Schuyler sisters, the daughters of a wealthy, politically powerful New York family. The sparks initially fly between Hamilton and the bristlingly smart and alluring oldest Schuyler sister, Angelica (Karen Olivo, who makes feverish regret palpable). But fearful of his lack of financial resources, she hands him over to her younger sister, Eliza (Ari Afsar, whose evocation of goodness and anguish are beautifully limned). Eliza adores Hamilton, marries him, is profoundly wounded by him, and then, after his death, works to keep his legacy alive in countless ways. Hamilton and Angelica engaged in a highly charged, long-distance, platonic relationship for years, but it was a married woman, Maria Reynolds (the stunning Samantha Marie Ware), who ensnared him in an affair that would lead to blackmail and personal and professional upheaval.

Every member of the cast, including Wallace Smith and Jose Ramos, is ideal, while the ensemble of dancers — in fascinating perpetual motion throughout the show — hypnotizes in remarkable ways. The orchestra, led by Colin Welford, is equally exceptional.

“Hamilton” gives us a world in flux. And the sense of this country as work-in-progress is captured in the muscular, brick and wood-beam set and turntable stage of David Korins, the lighting of Howell Binkley and Paul Tazewell’s boldly colored period costumes with their cream underpinnings.

This show, which has captivated the popular imagination in unimaginable ways, taps into the tempo and temper of both the historical and the contemporary in uncanny ways — conjuring a world turned upside down, yet capable of righting itself. A triumph.

The Chicago company of Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical, "Hamilton," at The Private Bank Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The Chicago company of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, “Hamilton,” at The Private Bank Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Note: Airing Oct. 21 and 23 on WTTW will be the PBS special, “Hamilton’s America,” a 90-minute documentary about the creation of the musical that includes interviews with Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Nas, Questlove, Stephen Sondheim and more. For details visit: http://schedule.wttw.com/episodes/388962/Hamiltons-America/.