Arts & Culture

REVIEW: 'Hamilton' raises the theatrical bar amid cheers in Des Moines

Joan Marcus

Alexander Hamilton (Joseph Morales) is bathed in the spotlight while friend and eventual foe Aaron Burr (Nik Walker) lurks in the shadows during the national tour of “Hamilton.” The blockbuster musical is onstage through July 15 at the Des Moines Civic Center.
Joan Marcus Alexander Hamilton (Joseph Morales) is bathed in the spotlight while friend and eventual foe Aaron Burr (Nik Walker) lurks in the shadows during the national tour of “Hamilton.” The blockbuster musical is onstage through July 15 at the Des Moines Civic Center.

DES MOINES — In the end, the cast of “Hamilton” sings: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”

If you’re very, very lucky, the answer is Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Broadway’s triple-threat phenom struck gold with his ode to the Founding Fathers’ unsung hero who got the new nation on firm financial footing. Miranda’s hip-hop history lesson sings Hamilton’s story in a way that shoots across generations, genders, races and cultures.

The blockbuster musical, which broke all the barriers onstage and at the box office, is playing through July 15 at the Des Moines Civic Center. Tickets sold out in a flash, but a few seats have opened up here and there. And embracing the show’s Broadway tradition, 40 seats in the front rows open two days before each performance, offered up via digital lottery. The best part? The tickets are just $10 — the denomination bearing Alexander Hamilton’s portrait.

The show has been turning the theater world upside down since it began selling out its off-Broadway run in February 2015 — even before leaping to Broadway’s top spot in August that year. In 2016, it swept up 11 Tony Awards, a Grammy for best musical theater album and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

It’s that good.

Each generation has a show that breaks all the rules and captures the fancy of new audiences, sending them scrambling to buy the hottest tickets in town. In my lifetime, those have been “Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which I was too young to see at the time, followed by “A Chorus Line,” “Cats,” “Les Miserables,” “Rent,” “Wicked,” and now “Hamilton,” arguably better than all of the others combined (except for maybe “Les Mis,” which still makes the people sing the song of angry men).

With “Hamilton,” its strength lies in the look, the style, the costumes, the choreography, the voices, the acting and the music — from rap and hip-hop to spoken word, a little jazz and lovely ballads.

And yet, I found my mind wandering in the second act, which slows down during Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton’s cat-and-mouse chess game that leaps from the political arena to a duel to the death. (If you don’t know whose death, crack open your high school history book.)

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My guest and I, who both studied music and theater and have performance backgrounds, spent much time afterward analyzing our unexpected, shared reaction. Her astute observation was that after the intense action and high emotions of fighting the American Revolution in Act I, the story slows down in Act II, with the political posturing, making the nearly three-hour show seem a little too long. For me, the downward moral spiral of both men left me rooting for neither one by the time the duel rolled around.

Their deep personal flaws rose to the top as they jockeyed for high rankings in the shaping of the young nation. One couldn’t keep his pants zipped and his mouth shut, the other hid his views from the public and turned on his fervent supporters, invoking Hamilton to make the sad observation: “Burr, my first friend, my enemy, maybe the last face I ever see.”

Despite the splendor of the massive dark set with its dual turntables, the dramatic lighting, the impeccable orchestra, the angular choreography often acting like visual punctuation, the gorgeous costumes and spot-on acting, some of the lyrics were hard to understand at the top of the show. So unless you’re real familiar with the music, and remember your high school history lessons real well, you’re going to miss some of the back story. The rapid-fire rap is a wonder to behold, but you sure have to pay attention to process the words.

As my friend pointed out, so often with musical theater, you can sit back and relax and get lost in the story, but with “Hamilton,” you have to stay focused throughout, or you’ll be lost.

Those who especially made us sit up and take notice include Nik Walker for his sometimes sinister, captivating spin on Aaron Burr; Joseph Morales sinking with aplomb into Hamilton’s deep flaws; Shoba Narayan for her tender, heartbreaking portrayal of his wife, Eliza Hamilton; Kyle Scatliffe for the way he storms the stage like a rock star channeling Prince in all his purple glory as Thomas Jefferson; and finally, Jon Patrick Walker, who provides much-welcomed comic relief sashaying through the role of King George, whetting our appetite with every rolled “r” and royal affectation that landed him the audience’s affection.

And every parallel between the difficult birth of the nation and the current state of affairs, especially the references to immigration, drew cheers across the generations packing the Civic Center on Thursday night.

This is a show for the ages, unlike any show that’s come before it. Miranda has raised a bar that will be hard to beat.

If you go

• What: “Hamilton”

• Where: Des Moines Civic Center, 221 Walnut St., Des Moines

• When: To July 15; various times

• Tickets: Essentially sold out, with sporadic availability; BUT, 40 $10 tickets in the front rows are being released daily by lottery via the “Hamilton” app and Hamiltonmusical.com/lottery

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• Lottery: Opens at 11 a.m. two days before the performance date and closes at 9 a.m. one day before the performance date, with just one entry per person; after the lottery closes, winners and non-winners will be informed by 11 a.m. and winners have until 4 p.m. to buy up to two tickets the day before the performance; full details at Desmoinesperformingarts.org/events/hamilton/

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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