There’s a moment late in the first act of “Hamilton,” a defiant declaration by Joseph Morales’ title character and his wartime cohort Marquis de Lafayette: “Immigrants — we get the job done!”
Wednesday night, that drew cheers from the soldout Durham Performing Arts Center crowd as the characters exchanged high-fives onstage.
The action was set in 1781, the Battle of Yorktown that settled the American Revolution. But it was impossible not to think about the election that just happened in 2018 — one in which paranoia over immigration was a major issue, yet a rainbow coalition of different races, genders and orientations was voted into public office.
“Hamilton” is the rare masterwork that toggles you back and forth between then and now. Both historical and contemporary, it’s kind of the ultimate “Schoolhouse Rock!” sketch expanded to full-length theatrical experience, set to breakneck block-rocking beats and a dizzying array of musical styles.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
It’s a gorgeous mosaic that works because, like all great art, it’s less about Alexander Hamilton than human nature. “Hamilton” is a tone-poem meditation on ambition, ego, jealousy and fatal flaws, with at least as much humor as tragedy.
This is not the same cast that took Broadway by storm in 2015 and won 11 Tony Awards, a Pulitzer and a Grammy. Top to bottom, however, the multi-racial traveling cast is truly spectacular, starting with Morales in the indelible title role created by original writer/star Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Morales’ Hamilton almost vibrates from the moment he appears onstage, a bundle of raw nervous energy. Hamilton, a dynamo who “writes as if he hasn’t much time,” burns with a desire to prove himself and make his mark. He quickly becomes George Washington’s right-hand man.
Opposite him is Aaron Burr, elegantly played by Nik Walker as the ultimate frenemy. Calculating and slick, Burr counsels the eager young Hamilton to, “Talk less, smile more.” Walker’s multi-layered performance is a wonder, revealing different shades as actions progress and the wheels turn. At various times, both men are in and out of favor and power, usually at the other’s expense.
The supporting cast is equally worthy, even the bit parts. Jon Patrick Walker’s King George puts in a couple of show-stealing star turns with songs reminiscent of ’60s British pop, bringing the house down every time. Elon alumnus Fergie L. Philippe shows tremendous range as the bawdy Hercules Mulligan in the first act and the deadpan James Madison in the second. And Ta’rea Campbell, as Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica, emerges as the play’s heart, soul and conscience.
Best of all is Thomas Jefferson, hilariously played by Kyle Scatliffe as a rock star with Little Richard-style flair. When he quotes the late rapper Biggie Smalls (“If ya don’t know, now ya know”) and drops the mike, it’s hard to imagine there’s ever been a cooler onstage moment at DPAC.
The music is a fascinating combination of showtune narrative and street-corner hip-hop, brilliantly executed with kinetic choreography and attention to detail that is simply incredible. At one point, the action calls for Hamilton to sheath his sword, and he does so in perfect time with the rhythm of the background music.
The fact that it all holds together with long stretches of exposition involving the U.S. Constitution, Federalist Papers and the U.S. financial system is a remarkable achievement. America has always been rife with contradictions — a “free” country where one of its major institutions was slavery — and they’re all there to see and ponder.
It’s glorious. See it if you can.