Editor’s Note: Angelo Hall is a 35-year-old Creedmoor musician who tours and records on the road, including for churches and in Nashville. There, he worked with country artists and singers and songwriters. He won The News & Observer’s guest critic contest and accompanied staff writer David Menconi to “Hamilton” on Nov. 7. “I believe in the power of storytelling, and I believe in the power of music,” he wrote in his entry. Here is his review.
Spoiler alert: Alexander Hamilton dies. And he has been dead for over 214 years. That means this isn’t breaking news; the news already broke.
But before 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, when I saw “Hamilton” for the first time, I couldn’t have told you much more about the existence of Mr. Alexander Hamilton. Three hours after I entered the Durham Performing Arts Center, though, I had an answer to the question that the theatrical company asks: Who tells your story? Lin-Manuel Miranda (playwright), Thomas Kail (director) and The Public Theater use Hamilton as a vehicle to tell a scintillating tale about Hamilton and many other historical figures.
“Hamilton” paints a portrait that primarily focuses on the protagonist’s progression from being an unknown immigrant to becoming one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. While Alexander Hamilton gets the attention, characters like Eliza Hamilton, Aaron Burr, George Washington, King George and others combine to provide the perspective that is necessary to make this musical what it is.
Some might disagree with me — and they would be wrong — but Nik Walker (as Aaron Burr) and Jon Patrick Walker (as King George III) Steal. The. Show.
Listen, Kyle Scatliffe as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson most certainly impresses me with his distinct portrayal of two separate characters, one of which requires rapping English words with a French accent. (I will let you deduce which character that is.) Additionally, Ta’Rea Campbell (as Angelica Schuyler) absolutely has me feeling “Satisfied” as she is in slay mode at all times, whether rapping, singing or seamlessly transitioning back and forth between the two.
But the Walker brothers, who don’t really resemble each other and are probably not related, are ridiculously captivating. Jon Patrick Walker continuously maintains this air of pretentiousness in both his articulation and his mannerisms that are wholly appropriate for someone depicting a member of the British Royal Family. I wanted to see him more than I did.
On the other hand, Nik Walker is featured quite a bit, and he genuinely delivers every single time. For real. Everything from the varying volume of his voice, to the quality of his vocalizations, to the wide range of emotions that his character calls for him to display combine to create an engaging and believable performance.
With that being said, I have seen great actors and great performances get overshadowed by poor direction. Thankfully, that is not the case with Hamilton.
There is nothing extraordinary about the set design. If I had to describe it, I would say bare bones. In fact, at one point, either late in Act I or early in Act II, it dawned on me that there had been no real set changes. Yes, there are props that are incorporated in the production, and parts of the set that shift around to add movement and superficial depth, but it’s all pretty basic.
Let me tell you what isn’t basic. The writing. And the choreography. The marriage between those two design elements is remarkably stunning, and they take this production to a whole ‘notha level.
I have to mention a phenomenal transition between two songs that stands out to me, and I will try to do so without spoiling anything else. The audience witnesses a sequence of events unfold from a particular perspective, when suddenly, everyone on the stage begins retracing their steps, backwards. It was as if someone with a remote control hit “Rewind” for a few seconds and then hit “Play,” which sent everyone on the stage back into motion to redo what they had already done. Yet, this time, we watched the sequence of events unfold from another character’s perspective. This is only one example of the brilliant choreography that is sprinkled throughout this production.
I can’t overstate how mesmerizing it is to watch the ensemble use their bodies to create beautiful imagery. They are the reason why an understated set design is the right choice. They are the set. They are a highlight.
As much as I am raving about this production, I should mention there are times when it is impossible to process what is being said. Sometimes, it’s due to the fact that the audio mix isn’t balanced properly. I get it. Of all the genres, live rap may be the one that requires the most adjustments to be made in real time. It is a tough task. Admittedly, during those moments, even though they are few and far between, I was slightly frustrated.
At other times, the difficulty processing is due to the fact that these people are spitting complex bars. Straight fire. Real talk, Miranda is a lyrical genius. For example, Miranda wrote: “In a letter I received from you two weeks ago, I noticed a comma in the middle of a phrase. It changed the meaning. Did you intend this? One stroke and you’ve consumed my waking days. It says: ‘My dearest Angelica’ with a comma after ‘dearest’. You’ve written ‘My dearest, Angelica’.”
Mind you, this is not a standalone delivery of lines. This is in the middle of a song. By the time I finished fixating on the fact that Alexander Hamilton appreciates grammar rules to the same degree that I do, I had missed quite a few of the lines that followed.
This scenario unfolds on multiple occasions over the course of the night, and I am totally OK with that, too. That is what great rap does. It takes you somewhere and it causes you to get lost in your thoughts, which requires you to rewind the song and listen to it again.
Like anything based on a true story, there are some creative liberties buried within Hamilton. Nevertheless, I learned more in three hours about a central figure in my country’s history than I had in the previous 35 years of my life.
I walked away wishing that it didn’t end when it did. I also walked away impressed and inspired.
More important than what I walked away from, however, is what I took with me as I walk into the future. It’s something that I hope to never forget. One sentence, beautifully portrayed by the “Hamilton” cast, is uttered from the stage, and it’s immediately met with enthusiastic cheers: “Immigrants, we get the job done.”