Hamilton review: Historical spectacle will dangle you over an emotional cliff, despite playing it safe

Shout it to the rooftops! Hamilton has arrived on our shores, giving Kiwi audiences a chance to finally experience the much-hyped musical live.

Considered groundbreaking in the way it blends musical styles (primarily hip-hop but also jazz, blues and classic Broadway) and reimagines American history through 'colour-conscious' casting - where the majority of roles are played by non-white performers - Hamilton is easily the most significant addition to the musical theatre canon in the last decade.

The show focuses on the life of Alexander Hamilton (Jason Arrow), one of the 'Founding Fathers' of the United States alongside (among others) the country's early presidents George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. His rise from impoverished orphan to political star is an unexpectedly rich story on which to base a musical.

It is a densely packed work of historical fiction, with a bit of everything: history, politics, romance, scandal, comedy and tragedy.

The narrative moves quickly, which on first viewing can leave you playing catch-up. Act One sets up the characters and political context, with the bulk of the dramatic action left for Act Two, as Hamilton learns that his ambition comes at a cost.

If you buckle in and commit, it's an exhilarating and well-crafted ride, barrelling along for most of its 2.5-hour duration before pulling up suddenly just before the end, dangling you from an emotional cliff before letting you gently, but devastatingly, down to the end.

You'll have your mind blown, but you’ll have to work for it: the show crams in a tongue-twisting 144 words per minute, which statistics site Five Thirty-Eight has determined is at least twice as many as most other musicals.

As if that's not enough to contend with, the Australian-based cast has other huge challenges to overcome here in Auckland: the expectations created by the seminal album and masterful Disney+ film featuring the much-lauded original Broadway cast; and the rafters of the vast Spark Arena.

This production is a solid and faithful reproduction of the original. The downside to this is that it does feel a little too safe at times, and really comes into its own where the lead performers have the confidence to bring their own flair to the characters.

Jason Arrow as Hamilton, Callan Purcell as his foe Aaron Burr and Martha Berhane as Hamilton’s wife Elizabeth Schulyer all deliver by-the-book performances, showing good command of the material but little to excite beyond that.

Two Kiwis are standouts: Akina Edmonds lends a fiery, gritty air to Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler and Matu Ngaropo draws on his Māori heritage to bring a noble intensity to his exquisite portrayal of George Washington, touchingly incorporating haka elements into his performance.

Hamilton's cast is bolstered by a couple of strong Kiwi performers.
Hamilton's cast is bolstered by a couple of strong Kiwi performers. Photo credit: Supplied / Daniel Boud

Victory Ndukwe is electrifying in his double-cast Lafayette/Jefferson roles, and Brent Hill is an absolute show-stealer of a King George, whose crazed megalomania reaches new comic depths under Hill's beady gaze and barely controlled rage.

Hill’s scenes are among the few times when the big screens flanking the stage actually add to the performance. They otherwise distract, especially from Andy Blankenbuehler’s exacting choreography that swirls purposefully around the stage.

Unfortunately, jumbotrons are a necessary part of arena shows - and Hamilton was made for a theatre, not a cavern. The sound quality muddies because it has to be highly amplified, and I'll wager that most seats beyond the most expensive are too far away to appreciate the intricacies of the performance, movement and set that add to the richness of this show.

That said, the punchy ensemble numbers like 'My Shot' and 'Non-Stop' have no trouble filling the space.

At the other end of the spectrum, I was pleasantly surprised that it still felt like the audience was collectively holding its breath in the most intimate, emotional moments.

It's hard to overstate how well Hamilton’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda (more recently known for his songwriting work on Disney’s Moana and Encanto), has done to turn the story of an early United States politician into a musical.

However, the show has been criticised for glossing over issues of slavery and racism that permeated the time and the show’s central characters, and went on to have lasting, catastrophic effects on US society.

But in my opinion, it does more to invite re-examination of the Founding Fathers' narrative than it does to preserve it.

Punchy ensemble numbers like ‘My Shot’ and ‘Non-Stop’ have no trouble filling the Spark Arena space.
Punchy ensemble numbers like ‘My Shot’ and ‘Non-Stop’ have no trouble filling the Spark Arena space. Photo credit: Supplied / Daniel Boud

For example the diverse casting - where caucasian characters are played by non-white performers - makes a powerful statement. The juxtaposition of 'othered' ethnicities playing the roles of their oppressors reminds us that it’s time for them to reclaim the narrative.

Each character is so clearly flawed they do not stand up to idolatry. Rather, the audience's adoration of them is, at its heart, admiration for the accomplished performances the source material demands.

It's a tremendous shame this cast did not get a chance to reach and be appreciated at their full potential in a proper theatre (I've always imagined that when the show finally came here, it would be at The Civic - a premier location for a world-class show).

But think carefully before you throw away your shot to see it, because Disney+ is no substitute for the thrill and scale of live theatre.

Hamilton plays at Auckland’s Spark Arena until June 11.