Saturday, December 30, 2017

Hamilton: it's great to be in the room where it happens (Victoria Palace Theatre, London West End)

It’s very unusual to sit through a theatre production in an auditorium packed full of people who already know that they love the show before a single actor walks onto the stage. But that’s the case with Hamilton in London’s West End. Every seat sold for the first few weeks (maybe even months) of the run is occupied by people (and their friends/families) who booked back in January 2017 when the tickets went on sale.

I’ve been walking past the Victoria Palace Theatre – or what was left of it behind the scaffolding – monthly for the last two years. In November and even early December, there was no hint that there was a finished theatre in behind the ongoing construction works. So I was somewhat surprised when the delayed previews were able to go ahead and Hamilton opened a few days before Christmas.

Stepping inside the restored theatre on Thursday afternoon, past the friendly-looking sniffer dog, it was a relief to see no sign of builders wearing hard hats indoors, though a fire warden did continuously tour the aisles and corridors (when the show wasn’t on) so there must be a fair amount of unfinished work.

The hip-hop musical takes liberties with the life of American founding father Alexander Hamilton and his contemporaries as it creates a dramatic narrative around his rise to power and premature exit from the political stage. The deliberate multi-racial casting presents a vision of modern-day America rather than the whiteness of political and military movers and shakers in the late eighteenth century.

It’s a story of a driven man – “I am not throwing away my shot” – who climbs the ladder of power, chooses the post of Treasury Secretary over control over the State Department (thereby creating a much longer and harder-to-unpick legacy of structural change rather than tickle and reversible foreign policy) yet in the end is a kingmaker but never the king.

The character of Hamilton in the musical – and in real life according to historical biographies – was no saint. It’s somewhat ironic that his legacy was only secured (and promoted) through the actions of his cuckqueaned wife Eliza after he pays the price for being competitive and losing everything at the hands of his convictionless competitor Aaran Burr who introduces himself as “the damn fool that shot him” in the first song.

Technically, the West End production of Hamilton was impressive and incredibly precise. Given the steep ticket prices and the waterfall of lyrics to follow to keep up with the plot, the quality of sound was both reassuring and essential. While the micced-up performers were fed through speakers dotted around the auditorium close to the audience, the live band boomed out from the base of the stage, keeping the lyrics crisp and every word intelligible. The lighting rig often bathed the seemingly simple wood and brick set* with warm and natural hues, throwing unexpected shapes (one of which hit me quite emotionally – a bit of a first!) and even created subtle movement during scene changes. [* the back wall of the set may not be quite as static as it looks!]

After witnessing the brute force necessary to manually rotate the Lyric Theatre’s stage in two shows this Christmas, Hamilton’s smooth and effortless rotating stage with independent inner and outer rings was a revelation. The automation that brought little wagons of candles on and off stage, guided by a groove in the floor, showed the attention to detail (and the money available to pull off such a design). Yet I’ve no idea why two ropes were anchored to one side of the front of the stage at the beginning, only to be removed and never used.

Success, failure, forgiveness, leadership, ambition, death, politics, economics, military strategy, migration, rights, human relationships … at times, Hamilton was closer to an opera than musical theatre. There was an intensity to the performance that never let up.

Jamael Westman physically towered above the rest of the cast playing Alexander Hamilton. He was rarely off-stage, and commanded attention as he dashingly strutted about in his boots, clashing with Giles Terera’s Aaron Burr (the clear baddie dressed in black).
“Why should a tiny island across the sea regulate the price of tea?”

Even if you’ve been experiencing Hamilton vicariously through the Broadway cast album and Youtube clips (as we have been subjected to in our house), the level of hilarity was totally unexpected as the live cast injected personality into the music.

The West End’s King George III was ridiculously effected and played to marvellous extremes by Michael Jibson who wandered around the stage, inserting looooong pauses into his songs and jabbing his finger in the direction of the audience while promising to send a fully armed battalion to remind us of his love. He also voiced the tongue-in-cheek pre-recorded mobile silencing announcement at the start: for once, the instruction was obeyed.

With much of the cast double roling, Jason Pennycooke stood out as a gloriously laughable and impish Lafyette in Act I, before morphing into a more serious Thomas Jefferson after the interval. The controlled slow motion choreography in the eye of the hurricane was just one example of its artistic quality.

The three Shyuyler sisters – Eliza, Angelica … and Peggy (Rachelle Ann Go, Rachel John and Marsha Songcome at the performance I attended) – provided the non-political thread to bind together the rest of the show. Songcome was impressive as Maria Reynolds in Act II. While the female characters were in a sense underwritten (though still critical to the plot), then gender mix in the ensemble dancing was refreshing and beautifully arbitrary.
“Don't modulate the key then not debate with me!”

There were little moments of endearing self-awareness that winked at the audience and acknowledged that this was theatre and not a straight history lesson.

Why a musical about an American founding father should work as a show in London is down to the quality of the Lin-Manuel Miranda’s writing and the wholehearted performances delivered by the entire cast rather than the actual events upon which they are based. Hamilton is similar to Evita in taking a relatively obscure story and giving it a dramatic and musical flourish (the running piano phrases that step out of so many of the songs are magical) that delights rather than confuses.

Hamilton is a musical that has been carefully designed to maximise its chance of success. Investment is on show everywhere, from the sumptuous costumes that set the tone of each scene (even if the knee breeches look like jodhpurs and make you wonder whether one of the ensemble dancers will soon enter stage right on a horse) to the automation, lighting and sound design. Musical Director Richard Beadle’s head and occasionally his hands popped up from the orchestra pit to keep the chorus starting and stopping together, even conducting the bows at the end of the show and giving the instruction for the cast to leave the stage.

Yet despite the level of programming and control, Hamilton was a show that emotionally connected. No one on stage was just going through the ritual of phoning in their performance (like I found at Fame one afternoon in the West End while on honeymoon some fifteen or so years ago). It was performed as much as it was produced, with and had heart and soul, energy, rhythm as well as an engaging way of telling a story that resonates on many different levels: racially, economically, politically and culturally.

Hamilton is not perfect. If your concentration wavers for a more than a few seconds you can miss a lyric and be left wondering who a character is, or what the significance is of an action on the stage. There are moments when you wonder whether the symmetry and plot twists are just a little too contrived. A mic was left muted for 20 seconds when King George III walked onto the stage, and one singer struggled with high notes. But those niggles barely add up to anything.

The enormous ambition of Hamilton is very definitely achieved, and achieved through the skill and talent of a wide range of people behind-the-scenes as well as up-front on stage. If you can afford tickets and can make it to London you’ll experience an example of musical theatre that sets the bar high even for the West End. It certainly left me wanting more.

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