IGN Article: Hamilton Review

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[Editor’s note: Like many people watching Hamilton at home on Disney+, this reviewer had not seen the stage show beforehand (but they did know the property through its soundtrack).]


For years, Hamilton: An American Musical was the hottest ticket on Broadway. Audiences paid hundreds for a single seat to see a dazzling array of hip hop, R&B, pop, soul, and showtune numbers that detailed the tumultuous life and tragic death of unsung founding father Alexander Hamilton. In the five years since this musical first hit Broadway, it’s made Hamilton a household name, won a slew of awards, launched into stardom actors Daveed Diggs, Leslie Odom Jr., Anthony Ramos, and its creator/leading man Lin-Manuel Miranda. Now, Broadway is dark until 2021. However, those craving its theatrical excellence can turn to Disney+, which is offering at-home audiences an invite to the room where it happened with a filmed version of Hamilton.

Writer of Hamilton’s book and lyrics, Miranda stars as Hamilton, the scrappy orphaned immigrant who rose to power in a newborn United States, thanks to his undying determination, ferocious intelligence, and blind ambition. Over this saga, Hamilton meets the enchanting Schuyler sisters, Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry), Eliza (Phillipa Soo), and Peggy (Jasmine Cephas Jones). He makes friends and enemies of historical titans like George Washington (Christopher Jackson), Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs), and James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan). And Hamilton befriends — then frequently infuriates — the man who earned infamy by killing him, Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.). Over the course of this wildly ambitious stageshow, director Thomas Kail not only ushered Broadway audiences through decades of story but also used the inventive tools of theater to create brutal war scenes, chaste sex scenes, and a full-blown hurricane on a spinning stage.

Ahead of the opening image of the empty stage, Disney+’s Hamilton offers a brief video intro from Miranda and Kail, in which the former calls this a film. It’s not a screen adaptation. It’s a filmed recording of the heralded original Broadway cast performing the 11-time-Tony Award-winning stage musical at The Richard Rodgers Theatre in June of 2016. That’s no minor distinction. While the stage show is incredible, this recording of it doesn’t fully function as a film.

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As promised by endless hype, Hamilton comes alive with amazing performances. Miranda is mocking, mirthful, wounded, and wrathful in turn as the eponymous hero. Goldsberry is riveting as the witty and rueful Angelica, who delivers smirks and rapid-fire lyrics with a thrilling confidence. Soo is hopeful, helpless, then heart-wrenching as Hamilton’s wife, while Leslie Odom Jr. steals the show as the piece’s self-proclaimed villain. Refusing to let us loathe Burr, Odom is jubilant as the piece’s narrator, treating the role as ringmaster to a three-ring circus that is the U.S.’s dramatic origins. With unapologetic showmanship he calls us in to witness political maneuverings as if they are outrageous attractions. Then, swiftly he switches tone from playful to poignant, shifting the whole mood of the show as he sings of his love for a forbidden woman.

Though played to the cheap seats, these theatrical performances don’t suffer on screen because of the expectations of a musical. Perhaps it helps that it’s always clear we are watching a play. The edge of the stage is often in view. The live audience can be heard throughout, cheering and laughing, but never to a degree that’s distracting. Such aural and visual reminders urge us to embrace other theatrical devices that make Hamilton the stage show shine.

Kail’s production makes imaginative use of its ensemble, which is stacked with talented dancers who transform into townspeople, soldiers, and literal forces of nature, providing a world beyond the show’s core characters. In the aforementioned hurricane, Miranda sings solemnly at the eye of the storm, while dancers circle around him, moving in slow motion, hoisting furniture and each other in an effort to create a swirling visual of the storm he fears will swallow him whole. In other scenes, their bodies contort to demonstrate the violence of battle. Their fingers trace the paths of bullets dodged or deadly. They swap a bit of costume, and swiftly paint a new setting and new time, while the main stage stays the same.

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Another inspired theatrical device is the lighting design. Swirls of blue light reflect a somber mood and establish the New York harbor where the British fleet is storming in. A stark shadow dividing the stage turns the bare space into two far apart offices, where Hamilton and Burr separately muse about the nation they want to build for their children. A single spotlight paints a fallen soldier a ghostly blue, signifying he is no longer part of Hamilton’s world. Such stagecraft is extraordinary. However, there are elements of this filmed staging that are marred by clunky cinematography.

Hamilton is not captured as much as it is covered. While the singing and score are expertly recorded, the cameras seem nervous to intrude into the action on stage. Many of the shots feel frustratingly misplaced. Some powerful exchanges are shot in profile, with half the actor’s expression lost to the back half of the stage. Further vexing, the actors appear to have been instructed to play to the live audience before them, not to the one who’d watch it later. The performers do not cheat to camera; instead they earnestly ignore its lens and address the mid-distance. Even moments like Burr’s direct-address narration of Jefferson’s flirtations to the crowd are aimed purely to those in the house, which creates a jarring distance for the at-home audience. We are not regarded as anything but afterthought.

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Also frustrating are master shots that truncate the stage. An arm reaching out from the edge of frame reminds us that there is more for playgoers to see, which we do not. Disney+’s Hamilton may be the definitive recording of the original cast. Nonetheless, it’s offering an obstructed view. Kail’s staging feels suffocated by cramped wide shots, which might explain the wonky editing style. On song numbers with a lot of the ensemble on stage, the cuts leap about the different angles without apparent motivation. It’s as if the editor isn’t sure where to direct our eye, and so chooses a little bit of everywhere in hopes we won’t miss a thing. Instead, we might not know where to look.

In song numbers with only one or two performers, the cut calms down, the camera pushes in, and viewers can focus on a character’s expression in shots close and well captured. In “Satisfied,” Goldsberry is center stage, her countenance masterfully expressing the thrill, heartbreak, and sacrifice all unfurled in that single song. In “Burn,” the camera drinks in the agony on Soo’s face as she sits on a bench and sings of betrayal. Then there’s Jonathan Groff, who is a cheeky delight as the vengeful monarch King George III. His songs have the demented chipperness of a 1960s love song, which he plays with a sharp tongue that turns the chorus into a manic threat. His lively vocals are not paired with a jaunty dance, but a diva strut sturdy and sassy enough to suit the contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race or the supermodels of Paris Fashion Week. As he’s alone on stage, the cameras and cut know where to concentrate focus.

Even without solitary moments of stillness, Diggs thrives. His exuberant dual performance as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson sparked fans, rave reviews, and untold thirst during his run on Hamilton. And it’s easy to see why. He’s a force of nature, spinning in bombastic dance numbers, and spitting rapid-fire rap lyrics with a deadly diction and mischievous smile. His energy is so explosive it seems at any moment he might leap from the screen right into your living room.

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