Review: Hamilton

2015-02-10 19.40.51In describing Fun Home I’d have used the word terrific; I’d have called The Book of Mormon gleefully brilliant; Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is adorably delightful. The word that keeps popping into my head for Hamilton: Magnificent. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new musical about our “ten-dollar founding father” — currently onstage at the Public Theater — is one of the best shows I’ve seen in years. It even tops the three wonderful musicals I just mentioned. It’s the kind of production you would want to travel to New York to see. And all I can say is that I hope this one’s going to be around a long, long time.

Are you taken aback by my hyperbole? Am I laying it on too thick? Then let me try to convince you.

You might be familiar with Alexander Hamilton as our first Treasury Secretary, author of the Federalist papers, adversary of Thomas Jefferson, victim of a duel with Aaron Burr. The show gets into all that, and it’s totally fascinating. But what makes it even more interesting is Mr. Miranda’s modern and joyous approach. He said a few years ago that Alexander Hamilton “embodies hip-hop” because of his immigrant background, illegitimate birth, and passionate belief that his writing could get him anywhere in life. Hamilton, then, is a musical grounded in actual history but using very contemporary urban vernacular. In other words, the founding fathers — here played by actors of many cultures — rap. A lot.

In Mr. Miranda’s earlier shows, hip-hop had been a sort of fun alternative to the traditional sung numbers, giving the shows a vibrant feel but never taking over dramatically. Hamilton is different. It’s sung-through, but the majority of the songs are rapped: A cabinet meeting becomes a rap battle, for example. It’s fantastic stuff. In fact it works so well that I am bit stunned it’s taken so long for me to realize the full dramatic potential of rap in a work of theater. Honestly, the language is so dense and colorful that it feels almost Shakespearian. (Stop rolling your eyes! I said almost. Anyway Oskar Eustis says something along these lines in the show program too.)

2015-02-10 19.31.26And the songs aren’t its only strength. I knew Mr. Miranda could write terrific numbers (In the Heights, of course, but also Bring it On and his Tony raps) but I wasn’t entirely certain that he would be as good when it came to constructing a dramatic arc. That’s because my big complaint about In the Heights was that it involved ridiculous plot twists: a character winning the lottery, for example. (My Puerto Rican friend Cristina, upon hearing this criticism, said, “Julia, you don’t understand Latino culture. The lotto is a part of our daily lives!”) In any case, I have no such reservations with Hamilton. It builds beautifully from Hamilton’s first meeting with Burr — who is the cautious foil to the hotheaded and passionate Hamilton — to their final duel. It’s beautifully structured, and along the way there is a ton of humor, clever callbacks, subtle characterization. This show seems to have simply everything going for it.

Including a fantastic production. Lin-Manuel Miranda plays Hamilton, of course, and is as winning as he ever is, leading a phenomenal cast. Standouts include Daveed Diggs as the Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson and Leslie Odom, Jr. as the doomed Aaron Burr. Brian D’Arcy James was pitch-perfect as the hilariously arrogant King George III. And my favorite of all was Christopher Jackson as George Washington, who embodies incredible dignity and strength. You understand, watching Mr. Jackson, just why George Washington towered over his fellow revolutionaries.

There are other musicals that succeed in doing just what they intend to. Lots, in fact. Hamilton is unusual, though, in that few of the big hits of recent years contain this kind of dramatic weight. To my great surprise, Hamilton had me in tears by the end of the evening. To be honest, in its historical sweep and raw emotional power I kept thinking of Les Miserables. (This morning I read the New Yorker article on Hamilton in which Mr. Miranda says “I really got my Les Miz on in this score,” so I suppose the link was intentional. He’s definitely obsessed with Les Miz, that’s for sure.) Here’s a dramatic musical that earns its emotional payoff without ever being maudlin. Even better is that all of these historical figures are portrayed by such a wonderfully multiethnic cast. They, along with the score, help illustrate that the founding fathers’ story isn’t some remote tale of heroes or dead white guys. We got here because of a bunch of passionate and determined people, who fought for what they believed in and ultimately created something greater than themselves. And that’s an origin story for all of us.

2015-02-10 13.30.09Now that I’ve gotten this far, I feel like I should backpedal. Am I overselling this? I’ve certainly been guilty of buying into hype over new musicals before. But even if that’s true, Hamilton is still quite an achievement. This show is incredibly rich with wit, heart, intelligence, character. It’s beautifully performed. The staging from Thomas Kail is flawless. The choreography from Andy Blankenbuehler perfectly suits the vibrance of the score. The lyrics contain a richness and symbolism that is rare for a musical. I wish I could see it again.

Magnificent.

My Grade: A+
Running Time: 2 Hours, 50 minutes
Ticket price: $50
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes

Review: A Delicate Balance

2015-02-09 10.53.11This one will have to be short, because A Delicate Balance is exactly the type of theater that leaves me cold and silent. Ever seen it? I figured since it was written by Edward Albee and won the Pulitzer back in the sixties, it had to be a pretty decent play. And then as I was watching the performance, I slowly realized I knew this show. (“Ohhhh yeah…. Their friends are going to move in and and refuse to leave…. “) If you’ve got a hazy memory like mine, I’ll put that into context for you. Agnes (Glenn Close) and Tobias (John Lithgow), wealthy marrieds with a well-stocked bar and a distant relationship, can just about tolerate their suburban existence, but then their various (potentially permanent) houseguests threaten the delicate balance of their lives. And all I could think was — Do we really care about white upper middle class existential angst right now, at this moment in history?

I don’t. And even if you do, I’m not sure this production serves the play very well. Sure, it’s well-cast with recognizable actors. I’ve wanted to see Glenn Close onstage since Sunset Boulevard; here she’s appropriately steely. John Lithgow is affable as mild-mannered Tobias, and I always like Martha Plimpton, who does what she can with her role as the bratty daughter Julia. So the actors are impressively pedigreed, Albee’s writing is intelligent, the characters do actually have some real issues to grapple with. All this could lead to a thrilling drama. But the production is — there’s no way around it — boring. I simply didn’t care about their first-world problems. And it didn’t seem like many in the audience did, either: the women on either side of me snored their way through the show.

Now, my TDF tickets were in the mezzanine and I had forgotten my binoculars. It’s possible that I would have felt more connected to the story had I been closer, and able to take in the subtleties of the performances a little better. But apart from one brilliant third-act outburst from John Lithgow, when I got goosebumps, I sat vaguely disconnected and sleepy throughout.

Director Pam McKinnon was responsible for an absolutely thrilling production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf a few years ago; it’s hard to believe this stodgy A Delicate Balance comes from the same playwright and director. On the other hand, this play does present an excellent case for the three-act play. Each act was under an hour, and the two intermissions were a delightfully brief ten minutes or so. If you’re going to sit through nearly three hours of entitled rich people fretting about their lives, breaking it up into digestible chunks is a good way to go.

My Grade: D+
Ticket price: $42 (TDF)
Worth it: No
Running Time:
2 Hours, 45 Minutes with two intermissions
Standing Ovation Watch: A Smattering

Review: Pretty Filthy

playbill“You’re going to see a PORN MUSICAL??”
“Well, I don’t think so. I think it’s a musical about the porn industry.”

(Ah, opening a blog post with cheap clickbait. What fun!)

But we are Serious Theatergoers, so I’ll skip further titillation and get right to discussing Pretty Filthy, a new musical from The Civilians. They’re a popular and innovative “investigative theater” company focused on bringing the stories of real people to the stage. Their performances are generally based on interviews conducted by the company themselves, and Pretty Filthy, a show about making it in the porn industry, is another product of this process. You can see it at the Abrons Arts Center through March 1.

Anyone curious about how the industry works — and who isn’t? — would probably get a kick out of it. Pretty Filthy features fascinating perspectives on the porn industry from agents, stars, former stars, cameramen, directors, wannabes, distributors, and more. Porn stars tell us how they got their stage names; a cameraman discusses framing angles; a famous porn star couple explains how they negotiate their relationship; straight guys talk about the appeal of working in gay porn movies. There’s a fairly thin story connecting all these delightful vignettes. Nice girl Becky — very much one of the Me Generation — aspires to porn stardom, and this show traces the ups and downs of her career and introduces us to the people she meets along the way.  It’s extremely clever, nicely constructed, funny, and continually interesting. And it has lots of room to improve.

Why’s that? Well, I think that there’s more substance to this subject than the treatment we see onstage. It’s not as though I was hoping for a vicious exposé of the porn industry (though come to think of it, a musical theater version of Frontline does sound like fun). To be honest, however, i think this show could ask a few more difficult questions. Because for the most part, this is the porn industry from their own perspective. So you get a very funny song about the guy who found the G-spot, but not a whole lot on the character traits that might lead one to a life in the industry. Or the industry’s potentially exploitative relationship with young girls, or its damaging effect on body image, or any one of a hundred other issues. In my mind, a more thorough exploration of one of these angles might have given the show more punch.

And it feels unfair to say I was disappointed with the music, though I suppose I was. That’s simply because the music was written by Michael Friedman, whose score for Fortress of Solitude is one of the best I’ve heard in the last year (as I said a few months ago). It’s not that the Pretty Filthy songs are bad; it just has nowhere near the texture and depth of his music for Solitude. For those of you familiar with the (excellent) Civilians podcast: the songs are in that vein. Small, and funny, and fine (as Sondheim would say), but not the sort of number that will stick with you.

Still though, the ensemble cast is delightful. I loved Luba Mason as an older porn star, and Steve Rosen is fantastic as some of the sleazier (and more hilarious) characters. Plus the production is nicely staged (by Steve Cosson, who also co-conceived the project). If Pretty Filthy doesn’t ever reach the satirical heights of a Urinetown, it still has plenty to enjoy. Though you might feel a bit icky at the end. Comes with the territory, I suppose.

One final admission: Like a jerk, I’m reviewing the very first preview performance. (If I were really a Serious Theatergoer, I would tell myself “But that is simply not done, my dear!”) I’m sorry, Civilians. I didn’t realize this until after I left the theatre last night. I’m hoping the fact that I enjoyed it way more than I liked the last Civilians production I saw helps make up for my rudeness.

My Grade: B
Ticket price: $29 (TDF)
Worth it: Yes
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Standing Ovation Watch: Maybe 10%