Courtesy Joan Marcus
Joseph Morales is not Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Ta’Rea Campbell is not Renee Elise Goldsberry.
Nik Walker is not Leslie Odom Jr.
And that’s a very good thing.
Let me explain.
Morales, Campbell, and Walker—as well as audiences at the Old National Centre—are the beneficiaries of one of the smartest decisions made for the tour of Hamilton, the blockbuster musical visiting Indianapolis through December 29.
I’ll get to that decision and why it matters in a second. First, for the three people reading this who don’t know what Hamilton is, let’s just say that it’s the only Broadway musical since Rent that people who don’t care a bunch about musicals have paid any attention to.
(Back off, Dear Evan Hansen fans, I’m exaggerating.)
(But only a little.)
Hamilton isn’t just a musical, it’s a phenomenon that is even more miraculous because of its improbability. Set your time machine back a decade and put yourself in a backers’ meeting where you’re asked to invest in a decades-spanning historical musical set to contemporary music, including two rap battles over policy decisions and George Washington singing about relinquishing presidential power.
Improbable may not be a strong enough word.
Back to my point. Once the Broadway production went through the roof and the inevitable tour was put together, the Hamilton producers could have made every effort to replicate the look and sound of the original cast, including Miranda (the show’s book/music/lyric writer). Some tours’ producers do that, leading to such efforts as an unmemorable tour of A Chorus Line that came through town that felt like it was cast not with actors, but with audio-animatronic figures a la Disney’s Hall of Presidents.
I left that one at intermission.
Instead of casting actors who most closely resemble their now-nearly-legendary original cast counterparts, the Hamilton producers embraced actors with different looks. They allowed room to tweak the songs in different ways—nothing extreme, but still. And they gave them room to find their own way to complete the characters as written.
The result here is an Alexander Hamilton who exudes youthfulness (you believe him when he acknowledges that his revolutionary pals are his first friends) and a distinct awareness and awe of his own chutzpah. Morales’s body seems to be constantly trying to catch up to his mouth. His Hamilton is awed by the world he’s found a way into, but always seems aware of his roots. When things do fall apart—through his own weaknesses—his humbling is deeply moving.
Creative casting means an Angelica Schuyler more grounded than the others I’ve seen (perhaps toughened by previous rejection?) and resigned to her life. She’s less assertive than Goldsberry’s original but with no less gravitas.
And it means a Burr with a hint of Salieri from Amadeus, bewildered but not amused by the success of and access acquired by his rival. Burr’s boiling point here is different than that of Odom or Joshua Henry (who anchored the Chicago production), and while he sometimes doesn’t seem to have enough skin in the game, Walker is never less than truthful.
The willingness to mix things up also benefits smaller roles. Given all of the fully alive characters on stage on my previous Hamilton encounters, I don’t recall paying much attention to John Laurens. But here, it would seem impossible not to notice Elijah Malcomb’s stunning voice. And demonstrating the depth of talent here, understudy Emily Jenda delivered beautifully, especially in the final, powerful moments when the narrative is handed to her.
If approaching with a mind open to these variations, Hamilton fans should happily see that there’s plenty to mine from this material.
Newcomers may struggle a bit to catch all of the wordplay, but will nonetheless be experiencing an uncompromised, very much alive rendition of this new American classic.