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Hamilton Review: Stripped-Down Elements Place Emphasis on Performances

Unless you've been hiding under a rock since 1776, you're acutely aware of America's obsession with freedom, and our love for the old white dudes who founded our country. Well, and apple pie, but that's neither here nor there; besides, it's delicious. So slice up a piece and get ready to celebrate America's birthday with the ten-dollar founding father – that's right, Hamilton is coming at you, just in time for the holiday, and it lives up to a lot of the hype.

Despite the source material itself being inherently flawed (it's a good show, but the story of the founding fathers and America's government is a bit of a dicey one), it's presented well and does its best not to romanticize death, war, slavery, or the likes – all of which are pretty central to any story of early America. The show chooses to focus on the human aspects and feelings of these events and their impact on our early (and current) society and not necessarily the battles, though I understand that the source story may not be everyone's cup (or ocean) of tea, and that's okay.

The Camera Work Provides an Intimate Experience While Live Audience Still Creates Typical Atmosphere

Hello, sir, are you, Aaron Burr, sir? No, that's not Burr (who's played by the electric Leslie Odom Jr.); that's Alexander Hamilton, as played by Lin Manuel Miranda. Now, as he also composed and wrote this little show, he made it a point to make this a diverse cast, and it brings so much added value to the story. True, the founding fathers were all white dudes who were some not great guys (shocker). Still, the story of how we won the Revolutionary War and founded our own nation is an interesting one, despite the involvement of problematic founding fathers.

The rap and R&B musical is sung-through, which means virtually everything in the show is set to music with no straight spoken dialog. Every single member of the cast not only holds their own but takes the character and breathes so much life into them that they're practically a living Macy's parade balloon. (Weird comparison, but I stand by it.)

Examining the MPAA's PG-13 "One F**K to Give" Policy
(Image Courtesy Walt Disney Co from the trailer for Hamilton)

For me personally, this show has one of the best ensembles out there – they do everything: facilitating on-stage quick changes and wardrobe, props and set movement, killer dance moves, pantomime, and of course, the tightest harmonies and flows this side of the revolution. I mean, what other company throws chairs and climbs the set like a jungle-gym night after night (aside from the cast of Barnum)?

The acting presented by the entire cast has added subtleties for the camera, though I wouldn't be surprised if this is exactly how they presented the show every single time. It all feels so natural and nuanced – they're playing for screen and not so much stage, and they are all very aware and capable of it. Perhaps the best example of this is in the inflections, even when a line is sung or even just spoken rhythmically over a beat. The tone and intonation tell a story of its own, and it's very akin to how Shakespeare is performed in the modern era, and I am so very here for it.

The performances are great, but they didn't just stick a camera and tripod in a seat and let it record a show; they took three days and filmed the show from a multitude of different angles. The camera often gets all up in the actors' faces, essentially forcing the audience to take in every single aspect and micro-expression of their performance. For live theater, especially a Broadway show, this is far closer and creates more of a connection with the audience than most could even dream of.

The downside to the great close-up camera shots is that unlike watching the performance live, you miss everything else that's happening on the stage. For example, whenever there's a battle or large dance number happening on stage, the ensemble literally fades into the background, which is a shame for me because I find them a personal highlight of the show. It's not like they're intentionally leaving things out, but especially for repeat viewings and in a show with so much going on and so many layers, I like to be able to to focus on something new, and the extreme close ups force you to focus on the singular thing in the frame.

Now, this is an admittedly picky complaint coming from a theater crafts nerd, but it's still a valid critique. If you're going to create a show staged with characters visibly "at rest" on stage, I want to see it. I want to see everything and be able to choose where to look and what to pay attention to – in films, this is a little different, because it's not presented the same. On stage, everything on stage is meant to be seen; in film, they constantly keep moving and re-arranging the "stage" with camera movement and framing.

The Set and Stage Design Create a Canvas for the Performances

While it may be pared down and simplistic, the set is effective and utilizes the space and set pieces; they have to tell the story. The backdrop is an exposed brick wall with wooden scaffolding around the edges of the stage that cast members hang out on while they're not actively dancing, but still adding to the vocals or ambiance.

The set is pretty cool, but my favorite part is still the revolving concentric circles set into the floor of the stage. These discs act like a giant CD player and spin either together or opposite one another, which adds more movement to the scenes and choreography and make it that much more breathtaking. Of course, I have to mention the lighting. It's dynamic and dramatic, but the cues are still cheeky at points and work alongside everything else to convey the story and characters. It adds to the stripped-down and scaled back crafts side of the show in order to let the performances really shine, live or filmed.

Hamilton's Stripped-Down Costuming is Simple Yet Effective

I know I've gushed about the stripped-down crafts, but the costumes take this to a whole new level. The characters all start in plain cream versions of their basic costume, with the silhouettes matching the regular versions of the costumes they wear a little later on in the show. Once the story starts to ramp up, each character "comes alive" with a colored dress or jacket, bringing them out from the chorus and into the spotlight.

Hamilton on Disney+ Review
An official poster for Hamilton. Image Credit: Disney+

The colors of the costumes follow classic color theory, but in jewel tones that make them pop against the drab background and neutral costumes of the ensemble. Historical accuracy is also followed closely for style, shape, construction, and even colors of the garments. As the show's timeline progresses through the late 1700s and turn of the century, so do the shapes of the garments, especially the ladies' dresses.

In a show like this where the ensemble players work in many different roles and situations throughout the story, it makes sense that they all stay in a basic, neutral costume, like the iconic "dressed down" uni-sex undergarments of the day, more or less. It lets you project your imagination on the show and visualize it in your own mind, much like reading a book. It's an elegant solution, whereas if there were constant quick changes, it would be distracting, and the stage would feel cluttered.

All in all, the show is a creative telling of a quintessentially American tale of ambition, romance, and the founding of our nation. If you are into urban flair musicals with a twist, Hamilton is likely to become a new staple of your playlists and watch-lists. And if you're not into smooth R&B and action-packed hip-hop musicals that rock…well, a Phantom of the Opera rewatch may be a little more your speed then.

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Eden ArnoldAbout Eden Arnold

Having spent far too much time in front of the television growing up, Eden has lots of opinions about television (as well as movies and everything else). She puts this to good use along with her journalism degree and writing experience with by-lines over the years in many print publications, books, and online media outlets. You can find her on Twitter at @Edenhasopinions
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