Forget Disney: You need to be in the room where it happens

Looking for shows while on a family trip to New York City in July of 2015, I was intrigued by one I came across: some kind of rap version of Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of Alexander Hamilton. Alas, it was still a few weeks away from opening, and it wasn’t until this past weekend that I finally got to see it.

Of course, we all know what happened with Hamilton between then and now. A Pulitzer, 11 Tony Awards, a Disney film version and worldwide adulation for Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose creation broke a lot of barriers just in terms of how a show can be cast. Black people portraying slave owners in colonial America? Rap music mixed with traditional songs in a big Broadway musical? Characters dropping F-bombs in an homage to the founding fathers?

It all seems quite normal now. Hamilton has even gotten to the point, in its young life, where think pieces about whether it’s still relevant in the age of BLM have been appearing.

As entertainment goes, it’s best to remember one important fact: Hamilton is a kick-ass musical that combines Good America with Bad America, joy and tragedy, hope and pain, aspiration and remorse. It’s everything a musical can be — the kind where not one but several of the songs stick with you for days. Where the choreography looks as inspired by art as it is by math. Where every single role is inhabited by an actor at the top of their game. It’s funny, it’s tragic, and perhaps more than anything, it’s a quintessentially American story with complex characters who can be held up equally as sinners or saviors.

And for those who feel like they checked the Hamilton box by watching the Disney film of the original Broadway cast production, think again. Because while it was undoubtedly a particularly well-done film version of a big musical (not an easy feat), seeing the live version with the excellent cast now in residence at the Denver Center is an altogether different experience.

Just entering the Buell Theatre and seeing the set is to get an idea of the scope of this production. It covers the entire enormous back wall and both sides of the proscenium with a stone façade of sorts that puts us in period. Hamilton starts off with a slow building rap about the title character that soon evolves into the full-blown “Alexander Hamilton” number. Soon thereafter it’s another big one, “My Shot,” and even with two of the most recognizable songs from the musical done in the first quarter-hour, there’s still plenty more to come.

This Hamilton is a well-oiled machine with everything hitting spot-on. Alongside the main characters is an incredible versatile ensemble cast of dancers and singers who play everything from British and American soldiers to duel spectators to tavern regulars and many more. The pit orchestra is a rollicking rhythm machine driven in large part by the excellent drumming of John Doing.

As Hamilton, Julius Thomas III is a commanding presence who captures the many sides of the character — the precocious youth, the ambitious sidekick to Washington, the eager soldier, absentee husband, adultery, duelist, mourner, legend.

I had a particular fondness for Paris Nix, who gets the two plum roles of Lafayette and Jefferson. After the war, he makes his hilarious and impactful entrance of Jefferson returning from France with the showstopper “What’d I Miss.” In Act Two, he appears almost always with Brandon Louis Armstrong as James Madison, and together they bring a comic duo’s lightening to some of the darker elements of Hamilton’s post-war years.

Eliza Schuyler was played by understudy Charlotte Mary Wen the night I saw it, and she didn’t miss a beat all the way to the final, heart-stopping light cue with her alone down center. Her sister Angelica is beautifully portrayed by Marja Harmon — yet another complex character with close and sometimes questionable ties to Hamilton.

Hamilton’s other two important relationships are with George Washington (larger-than-life baritone Darnell Abraham) and, of course, “the fool who shot him” Aaron Burr (Donald Webber, Jr.). Miranda structures the relationship between the three men as a push-pull struggle between caution (Burr), ambition (Hamilton) and fatherly counterbalance to both (Washington). It’s no secret, though, that Hamilton is the favored one, and it no doubt contributes to Burr’s increasing sense of estrangement from the action, culminating in Webber’s signature number “The Room Where It Happens.”

Rick Negron is King George in ‘Hamilton’ | Photo Joan Marcus

And then there’s King George, perhaps the character Miranda has the most fun with. Rick Negron gets the crown, robe and scepter in this production, and he’s just spot-on as the out-of-touch tyrant who pops in now and again to offer his thoughts on this whole revolution thing. They’re very funny bits, acted and sung wonderfully by Negron, and they do a good job comically pointing out how befuddled the king really was by what was going on across the pond.

So yes, Hamilton does indeed live up to the hype. If you can get to this production, by all means do it. But no doubt the show will circle back around in a year or two, at which point you should think ahead and get tickets before they sell out.

Tickets for Hamilton, you may have heard, are in short supply. But, as DCPA spokesperson Heidi Bosk told me, there is still hope.

“If a performance shows red, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s sold out,” she said, recommending that people check the ticket site regularly since some late-release seats may come available on short noti