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Pop CultureJune 1, 2023

Review: Hamilton (the musical) comes to Auckland


The 2010s musical theatre phenomenon has finally made it to Spark Arena. Does does it live up to the years of expectation?

This Angelica Schuyler is transcendent

Full disclosure: I am overly familiar with Hamiton without being a full-on Hamilstan. I’ve listened to the cast recording countless times, watched it on Disney+ a few times, and seen this very cast in Melbourne. I think it’s a very good musical, albeit one that feels just ever-so-slightly long in the tooth after eight years of ubiquity. (It’s far from the first musical to be burdened by its own success, see also: Rent, The Book of Mormon).

In saying all of that, Hamilton at Spark Arena is basically what you expect from it. The venue is a bit too large for the show, especially when you compare it to last year’s Lion King. Hamilton, which premiered off-Broadway, has had to expand to fit its audience, but the show itself is actually pretty small compared to a standard Broadway show. The spectacle comes from the ensemble, the choreography, and the ingenious use of a double revolve. The screens on either side of the stage, shakily framing the show in medium shots, are just a reminder of how intimate this show can be.

The highlights are where the cast bring their own little flourishes to the show – it’s worth noting that Hamilton is still one of the rare musicals where not only are people of colour given multiple starring roles, but also allowed to bring their own culture to these parts. It responds to the identities within the cast where other musicals, by the nature of the form, resist (see: Cats, Lion King, other shows requiring actors to dress up as animals or orphans).

Elandrah Eramiha, Chloé Zuel and Akina Edmonds as the Schuyler sisters in Hamilton (Photo: Daniel Boud/Supplied)

Specific highlights are Jason Arrow as the titular Hamilton (more believable as soldier, lothario and government official than Lin Manuel-Miranda ever was), Matu Ngaropo as a delightfully swish George Washington, and finally, especially Akina Edmonds as headstrong, lovelorn Angelica Schuyler. Edmonds’ voice is simply titanic, absolutely bodying the high notes while still leaving room for delicate small moments; she also lends Angelica a spiky edge that keeps her from being a tragic heroine, and instead someone with agency and life. When a show is this popular and ubiquitous, any performer is going to be compared to the Original Cast, and New Zealand-born Edmonds comes damn close to obliterating any need for comparison. Angelica might as well belong to her now.

Do I wish it was in a smaller space? Obviously. But it’s still Hamilton, which is a very good musical with very good bones, and you can do a whole lot worse than that. / Sam Brooks

Forget Disney+ – seeing it live is worth it

By pure coincidence, I spent time in New York City in 2015, a month after Hamilton premiered on Broadway. The streets were being blocked off due to crowds forming at the stage doors to the theatre, and the ticket lottery had to be moved online soon after due to traffic and safety concerns. I had no idea what Hamilton was but listened to the recording on my return to New Zealand a few weeks later. It’s a genuinely impressive and sprawling album that, since its release, has been both celebrated and denigrated in near equal measure.

In 2017, I would have paid hundreds of dollars to see the show live, having only glimpsed the occasional Blair Witch-style recording on social media. Years later, I probably still would have if the full show, shot for the screen, wasn’t available on Disney+. That you can see the original cast in all its glory for the cost of a free streaming trial means that the sell of this Hamilton run is exponentially harder.

Even so, there’s nothing like seeing talented performers singing and dancing live, and I agree with Sam that Jason Arrow is a much better Hamilton than Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Akina Edmonds gives Tony-winner Renée Elise Goldsberry a run for her money as Angelica. If you’re a Hamilton fan, you’ve likely seen it all before, but as one of the biggest musicals in history, it’s still worth the (now much cheaper) price of admission. / Madeleine Chapman

Matu Ngaropo as George Washington (Photo: Daniel Boud/Supplied)

A superb cast, but Spark Arena was a giant mistake – literally

I’m not sure I have any original thoughts on this production of Hamilton because the general consensus seems to be that the show itself is a masterpiece, the decision to stage it in a giant tin can, less so. And that pretty much sums up my experience seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s multi-award winning production at Spark Arena this week.

The show itself is extraordinary. This may not be the original cast (you can watch them in close-up detail on Disney+) but they are superb. I have no notes, but would single out local performer Matu Ngaropo as George Washington, who managed to inject some New Zealand flair into the typically stoic role. Martha Berhane as Eliza brought a tear to my eye, and Brent Hill as King George was a scene stealer.

Considering the global success of Hamilton and its Disney+ recording, it’s no surprise most of the performers in this Australian touring cast feel like they are somewhat replicating the original cast’s performances. It would be confronting if they started belting out Satisfied in an Australian accent, for example. But there’s enough interpretation on show in each of the key characters to stop you feeling like you’re watching a carbon copy.

Where this production is let down is in the decision to stage it at Spark Arena. The venue does a disservice to the show and to the performers, with giant screens providing an unpleasant distraction from what’s happening on stage. The audio occasionally feels distorted or tinny and any chance of theatre ambience or atmosphere is removed by the uncomfortable, narrow scaffold seating (PSA: beware that the platformed seating has holes in it and I lost something that will never be recovered). It’s also just weird seeing people eat punnets of hot fries during a theatre show, but that’s maybe a “me problem”. Having been fortunate enough to see Hamilton in a theatre previously, perhaps this will all be absolutely irrelevant to those of you lucky enough to be seeing the show for the first time. And I absolutely encourage anyone who hasn’t seen Hamilton, and even those who have, to seek this out. Because quibbles over the setting aside, this is a world class production. It’s also a strictly limited, two-week run, and the chances of seeing a Broadway-quality iteration of this show again on our shores again are slim (at least in the near future).

So whether you’ve had the soundtrack on repeat since 2015 or not, Hamilton is a must see. Just brace yourself for the Arena-fication of musical theatre. / Stewart Sowman-Lund

An unexpected gift for the uninitiated

Given the intensity of the fandom which surrounds Hamilton, it felt like a deviant behaviour to attend with no context, no sense of the object beyond ‘foundational US politics, rapped’. I found out it ran for three hours, inclusive of intermission, as I sat down, which further increased the risk profile. Whatever fears I might have had coming in so cold for something so loved for so long soon melted away, as Hamilton at Spark was mesmerising, even for the entirely uninitiated. Lin-Manuel Miranda has done something pretty brave and original here, taking these complex but very dusty characters from the foundation myth of the American republic and reshaping them using the sound and feel of hip hop and R&B. It’s a very Obama-era approach, from the conception to the sound and production – but in 2023, with justifiable nostalgia for that recent but fast-retreating past at an all-time high, spending three hours in this brilliantly vivid rewired past was a gift I never saw coming. / Duncan Greive

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