CHICAGO — Freshly arrived from Alaska and buoyed by an afternoon visit from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the cast of what’s now the only U.S. touring production of “Hamilton” opened back in Chicago on Sept. 14, marking the show’s first return to the city it conquered in 2016. Back then, “Hamilton” played 1,365 performances over a little over three years and three months.
By my estimates, more than 2 million people saw Miranda’s musical in Chicago the first time around, a show that here grossed some $350 million, making it far and away the most financially successful theatrical show in the history of Chicago.
It’s now expected to add another three months or so of business to those tallies, with some attendees repeat customers.
On Sept. 14, the show expected that so many people had seen it before, it even handed out special buttons for first-timers, presumably expecting the veteran Hamfans to be welcoming, as if at church. And, indeed, I witnessed several such conversations.
To some extent, the “Philip” company (very different from the original Chicago cast) that arrived here last week represents a second generation of “Hamilton” performers, a truth Miranda noted in the rehearsal room on Sept. 14, catching the eye of a cast member who had been a stage door fan of his when the show open on Broadway in 2015 and was now in the show herself. On a walk with me afterward through Chicago, fending off selfie seekers with his usual charm, Miranda spoke poignantly of the passage of time.
Already, it’s striking to me how the word “Hamilton” does not appear anywhere on David Korins’ set, which bursts to glorious life only when the humans appear. These days on Broadway, a visible logo is virtually compulsory so as to appease the selfie-Instagrammer-BeRealer-influencer people, or whatever they are called. It’s hard to write that “Hamilton” now seems to belong to a simpler, pre-pandemic time. But it’s true.
Many readers may have read this critic before on this show: I’ve seen and reviewed it 10 times before, from New York to San Juan, and I’ve written a book mostly on the show and its relationship to the Obama administration. I know it so well now as for it to be hard for me to put myself in the position of one of those button-wearers.
But, again and for the record, “Hamilton” is a masterpiece, a musical that succeeds brilliantly because of Miranda’s innate understanding that Broadway musicals are best when they are generous of spirit, honoring the traditions of the form while taking it in new directions. He found a subject (Alexander Hamilton) who allowed him to write, in essence, about work-life balance, fusing the travails of a brilliant Founding Father with those of an extraordinary young artist (himself). Because Hamilton lost a child, a kid who wanted nothing but to be like his dad, the show has a sadness that sits with its optimistic, pro-immigrant spirit. Everyone can relate. In my experience, after years of conversations about this show, everyone does.
Has there been any diminishment in what you are getting? Not at all. “Hamilton” has its pick of talent, still, and this cast is excellent: I especially enjoyed Marcus Choi’s take on George Washington and Jared Howelton’s very present Jefferson, but that might well be because they are the most distinct from what I have seen before. I liked how Deon’te Goodman’s edgy Aaron Burr was so underpinned by sadness and thought Pierre Jean Gonzalez was an empathetic Alexander Hamilton. Ashley LaLonde is a cool Angelica, too.
The theater is different this time around: The Nederlander Theatre is larger and, most notably, wider than the CIBC Theatre and the show sits quite beautifully there, allowing for more people to have excellent seats. I think the sound folks should work more on tuning the house, given the length of this run; it is a tad lyrically muddy early in the show, and this from a guy who already knows every line. The cast can help there too: they all are beautiful singers who clearly love every note, but the story has to flow outward from the first moment.
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