Surrender is a necessary Part of the Hamilton process. You sit in your plush Hobby Center seat, clasp your hands, and accept you’re about to witness a spectacle. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-studded tour de force has finally arrived in Houston, and, hoo boy, was it worth the wait.
Audiences are dropped into the earliest days of our country as Alexander Hamilton—a “young, scrappy, and hungry” immigrant fresh off the boat from the Caribbean—rises to become George Washington’s Revolutionary right hand, writes the Constitution (or at least the good parts), and architects the young nation’s monetary policy. If you’ve heard the original cast recording, you know what to expect: not one, but three Founding Father rap battles; snarky interludes from a sniveling King George (here played by the marvelous Peter Matthew Smith); and the world’s most palatable musical debate about the national debt.
As we settled into our seats, my theater companion immediately joked the show—widely praised for its color-conscious casting—probably features the most melanin to ever grace the stage of Sarofim Hall, and I’m inclined to agree. The resonance of what Miranda calls “a story about America then, told by America now” should feel obvious to crowds in the country’s most diverse metropolis; Act I’s “Immigrants, we get the job done” line garnered audible whoops from patrons in the sold-out theater. In fact, there was plenty of audience participation from those who either mouthed or full-on sang along to the performance (to the point where it was disruptive).
But even if you’ve memorized every line of every song, witnessing Hamilton live exacts a wonderful physical toll. This touring production imports the double-turntable stage that enables swirling, Busby Berkeley ensemble moments. Andy Blankenbuehler's athletic choreography demands perpetual motion, with actors banging flagons on tables, dangling stools from the tiered wooden scaffolding, and practically twerking against the brick backdrop. While the mile-a-minute rap portions are occasionally lost to the iffy acoustics of the Hobby Center, I’d be lying if I said the indecipherable sonic energy didn’t feel every bit as thrilling as the parts I could hear. There's simply a lot going on at such a high level that by intermission, you feel out of breath from digesting historical witticisms and Gilbert and Sullivan references.
The actors powering this version of the juggernaut deserve their due credit, of course. At my performance, two understudies, Edred Utomi and Dorcas Leung (the cast's only Houston native), filled in for Hamilton and Eliza, respectively, and proved the depth of this production's casting. Utomi's Hamilton delivers all the cocksure individualism the role calls for, while Leung belted the hip-shaking love ballad "Helpless" with the necessary Beyoncé confidence (one of Miranda's explicit influences).
Nicholas Christopher's Aaron Burr provided the snarmy villain of the play, narrating parts and serving as Hamilton's thematic foil; Chris De'Sean Lee balances the duel role of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, each portrayed as sass masters of the highest degree. The towering Carvens Lissiant rose to the occasion of playing larger-than-life George Washington to bring down the house with the musical thesis statement that is "History Has Its Eyes on You." There were simply no bad performances, period.
Naturally, there are some who oppose the gushing enthusiasm of the unstoppable Hamilton hype machine. One blue-haired patron shuffled out of the Hobby Center wondering aloud how she "might not have been the demographic" for this musical, which is probably true. Not everyone loves musical theater, much less hip-hop or R&B. Yet the fact of the matter is that even three years after it made its initial splash in January 2015, this musical still feels urgent and innovative. Hamilton is now simply part of the conversation, and Houston should revel in it while it can.
(Seriously—enter the lottery for $10 tickets.)
Thru May 20. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St. 800-900-6560. More info and tickets at houston.broadway.com.