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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

Hamilton, Victoria Palace Theatre

Okay, let’s just get this out of the way. The musical ‘Hamilton’ is stupendously good. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s show about Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the US Treasury, is actually better than the hype suggests.

That’s because lost in some of the more waffly discourse around its diverse casting and sociological import is the fact that ‘Hamilton’ is, first and foremost, a ferociously enjoyable show.

You probably already know that it’s a hip hop musical, something that’s been tried before with limited success. Here it works brilliantly, because Miranda – who wrote everything – understands what mainstream audiences like about hip hop, what mainstream audiences like about musical theatre, and how to craft a brilliant hybrid. Put simply, it’s big emotions and big melodies from the former, and thrilling, funny, technically virtuosic storytelling from the latter.

‘Alexander Hamilton’, the opening tune, exemplifies everything that’s great about the show. It’s got a relentlessly catchy build and momentum, a crackling, edge-of-seat sense of drama, and is absolutely chock-a-block with information, as the key players stride on to bring us up to speed with the eventful life that Hamilton – the ‘bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman’ – led before he emigrated to America in 1772 as a teenager.

Thomas Kail’s restaged Broadway production is confident but not flashy: a series of taut, almost tableaux-like scenes with a crisp, minimal set and choreography that allows the music, words and the striking figures of the cast to take centre-stage.

If there were worries a Brit cast might struggle, they’re unfounded. Relative newcomer Reuben Joseph is a revelation in the title role: he can spit lines like a machine gun, sing like a dream, and being both young and prodigiously tall he perfectly channels Hamilton’s gaucheness, as the socially inept but relentlessly driven immigrant sets about trying to liberate and reform America with feather-ruffling vigour.

Pitched against him is silky smooth Simon-Anthony Rhoden as Hamilton’s mentor and nemesis Aaron Burr, a smart, inscrutable career politician increasingly dismayed by the success of Hamilton’s unconventional methods. There’s a touch of Mozart-Salieri to their relationship. But one of the strengths of ‘Hamilton’ is that it’s a rare musical that acknowledges real life is more complicated than heroes and villains: we see that Hamilton is arrogant and petulant; we know Burr was hardly evil.

Miranda and Kail know exactly what buttons to press and when. We get the kinetic, virtuosic, info-heavy numbers. But it’s properly funny too. The interludes in which our very own George III (Joel Montague) pops up to pass sneering comment are hilarious, and come with an infernally catchy song, the lovely, Beatlesy ballad ‘You’ll Be Back’. Elsewhere Waylon Jacobs is absolutely glorious in the dual role of frenzied Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette and preening, Prince-alike Thomas Jefferson. The show certainly doesn’t shy away from the fact that historical figures rapping is fundamentally amusing.

The introduction of the Schuyler sisters – Hamilton’s future wife Eliza (Shan Ako) and his soulmate Angelica Schuyler (Allyson Ava-Brown) – lobs a bit of sparky, ’90s-style R&B into the mix, and cedes the bloke-tastic narrative to its female characters (briefly). And then Trevor Dion Nicholas’ booming George Washington adds another shade entirely – a rumbling, soulful giant who rises over Hamilton and his incessant squabbling.

The second half is bleaker. After the hero’s last legislative triumph – marked by Burr’s tour de force number ‘The Room Where It Happens’, clearly the greatest song anyone will ever write about a clandestine tax deal – our hero goes into decline. The ending is soulful and sad and lower-key than you might expect. But the final question, ‘who tells your story?’, is also the exact right poser to end things on.

That’s because the great symbolic power of ‘Hamilton’ lies in its bold placement of immigrants, minorities and their culture at the very centre of the American narrative: it says, this story is ours too.

I could bore on about ‘Hamilton’ as a sociological phenomenon for days, and considered in those terms, there are faults to find, from male-centricity to US jingoism and more. Whether or not ‘Hamilton’ is the best musical of our generation – it clearly is, but whatever – it’s been a hit for the only reason anything is a hit: because it is a great work of entertainment.

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