REVIEW: ‘HAMILTON’ — Astonishing stagecraft

“Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap musical about the eponymous Founding Father, has finally landed in Manila — the first stop of a new international tour that replicates the exact production currently running on Broadway and London’s West End.

This is, in other words, essentially the same production that’s won every major theater award conceivable in the West, and whose live stage recording released on Disney+ three years ago was a global success among Covid-captive home viewers.

You wouldn’t immediately know all that, however, just from watching this production: Even as it brims with dazzling theatricality and refreshing erudition, it also feels surprisingly small, rid of its status as a phenomenon, pared down to human size.

It’s a show that’s almost oblivious to its own celebrity, even as entrance applause (erupting to diminishing returns) dotted the first 15 minutes of its 21 September gala performance at The Theatre at Solaire.

Instead, it knows when to build up to the big musical moments, which are few and far between, and does so organically and therefore quite satisfyingly. The logical progression of the narrative and individual character drama — the musical’s unassailable structural precision — are rendered very clear; put bluntly, it is a storytelling apologist’s wettest dream.

Never mind that the musical itself — evidently a product of modern-day liberalism, the politics of the American Dream made manifest through the eyes of 21st-century immigrants — is by now indivisible from the very valid criticisms it has received from many corners of American scholarly thought.

For the uninitiated, Hamilton tells through rap the rise of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as they built America in the latter half of the 18th century. Admittedly, given what we know now and what we’ve been through since the musical premiered in New York in 2015, it feels weird, to say the least, to be watching a show that hero-worships to varying degrees the likes of Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton — all products of and complicit to the sins of their time.

Moreover, the way the musical intentionally casts non-white actors to play these historically white figures (and slavers) can, depending on how one looks at it, come across as a stroke of meta subversion or “revisionist and insulting nonsense,” to quote one critic.


Unique brilliance

Again — all valid criticisms, which some have suggested are actually part of the musical’s unique brilliance. Watching the musical (through this particular production) in Manila, however, you entertain those thoughts mainly in retrospect.

Inside the theater, it’s all those aforementioned merits — and more! — that surround you: a show that’s so technically precise in ways that highlight the material’s inventiveness, a feast of astonishing stagecraft, a display of just how good musical theater can get when given vast resources.

DeAundre’ Woods as Aaron Burr. | photograph courtesy of IG/dre_woods

Despite the title, the crux of this production is DeAundre’ Woods’ Aaron Burr (Hamilton’s archrival, if you will). It’s a performance for which the phrase “no notes” seems to have been coined. Whenever Woods disappears from the stage, you look for him.

But, more importantly, the genius of Woods’ performance is in how it becomes the anchor through which the musical itself can be better understood: as a story of wanting and longing, a warning against the folly of ambition, a morality tale run parallel to the uncertainty and messiness of nation-building.

When Woods sings (and brings down the house with) Burr’s first big solo “Wait for It,” you instantly comprehend the song

— and, for that matter, the musical.

Arguably, Burr is the central and meatiest role here. Next to Woods’ interpretation, however, the smallness and silliness inherent to the story Hamilton tells become all the more coherent. You grasp how Hamilton and his posse were essentially just kids bumbling their way through a revolution. It’s all very grand on paper, but it’s also a journey chockfull of pettiness and foolishness — and on that stage, a history lesson that revels in its occasionally juvenile, highly accessible nature.

JASON Arrow as Alexander Hamilton. | photograph courtesy of ig/jason arrow

Three other male performances stand out in the process: Jason Arrow’s Hamilton, who convincingly pulls off the title character’s transformation from “young, scrappy, and hungry” to world-weary; Darnell Abraham’s Washington giving gospel-preacher-showdown realness; and Brent Hill’s King George literally putting the “mad” to delectably comic effect in his interpretation of the famed mad king.

DARNELL Abraham as George Washington. | photographs courtesy of ig/darnell abraham


BRENT Hill as King George. | photographs courtesy of ig/darnell abraham



Elsewhere, this is a production that’s supplied with all the right parts — but, on a local stage as technologically impressive as the Theatre at Solaire (the best acoustics in Metro Manila, hands down), it also invites “dreamcasting” — permitting you to imagine in real time how certain Filipino theater performers cast in certain roles would, without a doubt, totally slay those parts.

No matter: As it is, this Hamilton is one that lives up to the hype surrounding its supposed brilliance — while simultaneously earning that reputation before a live audience night after night.

Among others spots of pure artistry, it has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it onstage costume change involving the terrific ensemble early in Act I, a historical battle conjured through frenzied dance, and entire scene changes and moments evoked simply through the deliberate arrangement of performers’ bodies (that climactic bullet scene, anyone?).

In lieu of an arduous and expensive trip to New York or London, this production more than does the job.

Hamilton runs at the Theatre at Solaire, Pasay City, until 26 November.