Richmond is the kind of place where you can feel our country’s past shifting on your shoulders as you walk. Start at the State Capitol, where Jefferson Davis once lorded over the Confederacy. Stroll down Franklin Street and you meet all the revolutionary boys done good: Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, all cross streets, in order. It’s the kind of walk that can be a reminder of what you know, while confirming how much there is to learn.
A few more blocks and you’re at “Hamilton.” Not the street, but the blockbuster musical on stage at the Altria Theatre through Dec. 8.
“Hamilton” is a clever biography of Alexander Hamilton, an important Founding Father relegated to the B-team in most history books. Like Benjamin Franklin, he never became president, but his ideas are just as revolutionary as any Virginia plantation owner’s, and are still with us today. He’s notable enough to be on the $10 bill, but worth another look.
What the musical shows us is the quintessential American story of an impoverished immigrant achieving wild success in New York City, punching and kicking his way up every rung of the social ladder.
Hamilton’s story happens to share some broad similarities with those of modern-day pop stars like Jay-Z, Nas and The Notorious B.I.G. To put a fine point on it, this is nominally a “hip-hop” musical about an up-from-the-streets rise to fame. It features beat-boxing and rap battles, although that conceit is swallowed up by the traditional tropes—both musical and lyrical—of Broadway shows. A love of hip-hop is not required.
The touring cast is excellent across the board, particularly Edred Utomi as Hamilton, Josh Tower as Aaron Burr and Paul Oakley Stovall as George Washington. Bryson Bruce pulls double duty as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, packing a considerable comic punch as the latter.
Despite the preponderance of notable Virginians, “Hamilton” is, in the spirit of hip-hop jams like “Déjà Vu” by Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz, a love letter to New York. Still, there is reason to believe Virginia is the perfect place to see a play set at the birth of our nation. At that time, the state was the heart of the colonies, and you might feel a sense of pride with each mention of Mount Vernon and Monticello. Or you might sympathize with Hamilton’s burning rage at being politically outmaneuvered by slave-owners Washington, Jefferson and James Madison.
There are times when the lyrical delivery nearly cringes its way into “eighth grade teacher tries to make history cool” territory, but a clever turn of phrase usually saves the day. The same can be said of the choreography, which occasionally makes stunning use of rotating concentric circles in the stage that move characters in opposite directions.
Two of the most impressive songs are only hip-hop around the edges. “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” and “It’s Quiet Uptown” are heavy hitters that put some emotional meat on what can otherwise come off as a skeleton summary of the deeds of an important man. Both songs are enhanced by innovative movement from the entire cast.
“Hamilton” is Broadway canon now, and has rebranded the titular Founding Father in a new light. It’s worth seeing that light shine in Richmond, where Hamilton might not be appreciated like he is in New York, but maybe he should be.
In fact, if you keep walking on Franklin Street past Monroe Park, it becomes Monument Avenue. Eventually, you get to Hamilton Street. It’s far from the featured players downtown, but it’s there.
Our Founding Fathers are valuable for showing us where we came from, but it’s nice to be reminded, as “Hamilton” does, that they can also show us the way to something new. The fraught history that weighs on us is leading us somewhere. Someday, it’ll blow us all away.