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In Washington debut, ‘Hamilton’ feels freshly relevant

In Washington debut, ‘Hamilton’ feels freshly relevant
A scene from the national tour of "Hamilton." (Joan Marcus)

Complaints and taunts aimed at immigrants. A sex scandal involving a high government official. Intense partisan bickering fueled by short-fused tempers.

Tired of being bombarded with all those current, terribly distressing issues?

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Head to the Kennedy Center Opera House, where the superb national tour production of the incredibly in-demand musical “Hamilton” will provide enormous relief by immersing you in an eventful story dealing with – oh, wait a minute. It’s also got complaints and taunts aimed at immigrants; a sex scandal involving a high government official; intense partisan bickering fueled by short-fused tempers.

This Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning show by Lin-Manuel Miranda has been an enormous success since opening three years ago on Broadway, where it still reigns. It’s big in London, too. And you can count on a lot of touring; the musical will reach Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre next summer.

To the distinctive rhythms, linguistic and percussive, of hip-hop, “Hamilton” spins an ever-relevant tale of early-American history centered around the founding father responsible for the central banking system.

Inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, Miranda isn’t so much concerned with accuracy (the factual record is occasionally tweaked or ignored) as he is with making this country’s past and passions feel freshly vital.

The result is a brilliant work that rarely seems to take a breath (an intimate scene in Act 2 involving a character’s last one is thus all the more affecting). Events and personalities flow by at the speed of a cable news station’s chyron.

Amid the swirl and almost continual choreography (I wish choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler didn’t keep things looking so busy so often), we get the essence of Hamilton’s nature – “Hey, yo,” he raps, “I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy and hungry / And I’m not throwing away my shot.”

We follow his rapid rise from Caribbean-born orphan to major player in the struggle for independence and influential craftsman of nationhood. We meet principal figures in Hamilton’s life, public and private, who had their part to play in the democratic experiment. In the end, we are left to ponder the meaning of legacy and to ask, as the closing song puts it, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”

It may be blasphemy to suggest that the musical could be more tightly focused in places, a little meatier in its treatment of the battles – military, political and philosophical – that engaged Hamilton, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Although Hamilton’s complicated personal affairs have to be a key element here, I confess sharing the sentiment uttered by Jefferson after one detour – “Can we get back to politics?”

In a likewise heretical vein, I wish the pivotal figure of Aaron Burr emerged with greater depth along the way. His character and motivations don’t register all that strongly, leaving him a rather distant, if charming, figure even up to the moment when (if you skipped American history classes in high school, stand by for a spoiler alert) he kills Hamilton in a duel.

Nonetheless, the musical is so cleverly constructed, so full of conviction and optimism, that reservations fade quickly.

As a lesson in wordplay, “Hamilton” stands as tall as a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta (there’s a nod to G&S in the lyrics; Rodgers and Hammerstein, among others, get referenced, too).

Musically, Miranda does wonders. Even with a preponderance of standard rhythms, the hip-hop songs cover an impressive range of harmonies and moods (Alex Lacamoire’s orchestrations help greatly with this). And when Miranda breaks away from hip-hop, he reveals lots of clever melodic and harmonic ideas, sometimes veering into “Chicago”-style razzle-dazzle, or song-and-dance tunes that could fit into any number of vintage shows.

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The ultimate genius of “Hamilton,” though, may well be the way it is meant to be cast, with actors of color portraying founding fathers, including the slaveholding ones. This act of table-turning challenges preconceptions and stereotypes, makes audiences think differently, perhaps react differently.

Above all, at a time when matters of race are newly pressing and urgent, there is something awfully powerful about this visual element in “Hamilton,” which seems to say that our past belongs to all of us, or it doesn’t belong to any of us.

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The D.C. cast carries out Thomas Kail’s kinetic direction with spark, bounding all over a big, boxy set by David Korins that’s exquisitely lit by Howell Binkley. (Miranda was in the house opening night, setting off audience cheers when spotted darting to his seat as the lights dimmed.)

Austin Scott makes a robust, yet sensitive, Hamilton. Nicholas Christopher brings suavity and a nice hint of haughty to the role of Burr. Carvens Lissaint is suitably imposing as Washington. In a dual assignment, Bryson Bruce has quite the romp as Lafayette (laying on the accent a little too thick) and has even more fun with the musical’s comic treatment of Jefferson.

There are expressive contributions, vocal and dramatic, from Julia K. Harriman (Hamilton’s wife, Eliza) and Sabrina Sloan (Eliza’s sister, Angelica). And Peter Matthew Smith, with the cleanest diction in the cast, does a royally amusing job as snickering King George, a character who gets some of the score’s cleverest music.

The rest of the well-honed ensemble measures up strongly. Music director Julian Reeve assures solid, vivid playing from the orchestra.

Paul Tazewell’s costumes conjure up Colonial America, with many a tricorn hat. But at its heart, “Hamilton” is all about the here and now, all about us, and the work still to be done in a country that, as Burr puts it in the show’s penultimate number, remains a “great unfinished symphony.”

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