Live theater is an obstacle course, but 'Hamilton' at the Pantages is worth it

·6 min read

“Hamilton” returned to the Hollywood Pantages, and after 17 months of not being inside a theater, I decided it was time to be back in the room where it happens.

Trust me, your doubly vaccinated, tightly masked theater critic didn’t take this step lightly. I’ve been tracking the Delta surge the way storm chasers monitor hurricane signals in the Caribbean.

My private risk calculation, however, suggested that it was time. I’m relatively healthy and there’s no one especially vulnerable with whom I’m in daily contact. Also, until “Succession” returns this fall, I’m all out of television.

A voice in my head has been urging me to learn to live with this damn virus. I haven’t been dining in restaurants and tend to see friends only outside, but last month I went on a plane for the first time since February 2020. This math seems subjective because it is subjective. But for most of us the circumference is widening, cautiously yet inevitably.

“Hamilton” felt like the right homecoming. I’d seen the show four times before, not counting the laptop viewings on Disney+. I can’t think of another contemporary work that more thrillingly captures the propulsive vitality of musical theater than Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece.

For this first outing, I wanted to be dazzled. I wished to silently sing along, not piece together an unfamiliar and perhaps indifferent plot.

Anticipating the stress of the new COVID-19 protocols, I forgot the old stresses, the lunatic driving at Hollywood and Vine, the $25 parking fee (“credit card only, please”). The woman sitting behind me returned after intermission with a bag of potato chips. All through "What'd I Miss," the second-act opener, she didn’t just chomp but seemed to be trying to set up a tent with the wrapper.

On the plus side, no phones went off in my vicinity. But when someone shouted something indecipherable near the end of the show, I felt that clutch of panic I haven’t experienced since the pandemic sent us into seclusion. How quickly the subterranean terror of living in a society overrun with gun violence returns, I thought, once realizing it was only an audience member’s miscued enthusiasm.

Those COVID-19 protocols weren’t rigorously enforced. I was desperately eager to show off my digital SMART health card that only took only a month for the California Department of Public Health to correct. But when I asked the ticket check-in person if he wanted to see my proof of vaccination, he declined the privilege.

My companion was required to show her vaccination card when her bag was checked, but not having any purse or parcel, I sailed through this security checkpoint oblivious of the opportunity I was being denied.

Inside the Pantages’ Art Deco lobby, theatergoers milled as chaotically, boisterously and perplexedly as they are wont to do. Masks were worn as though they had long been standard fashion, a garment no more desired than some restricting undergarment but socially necessary all the same.

It wasn’t until I went inside the theater that I began to spot the scofflaws. The first was a guy with his mask hanging from his chin like a wayward bandage. He appeared to be hitting on a female acquaintance who, by the way she slipped away from him, didn’t seem all that impressed by his undraped nose.

Directly across the aisle from me, an arrogant-looking fellow in his 60s sat unmasked for nearly the entire show. “Hamilton” is long, nearly three hours. That’s a lot of time for not a single usher to confront the smugness of a guy who assumed that the rules don’t apply to him.

I had to remind myself more than once that my role wasn’t classroom monitor. That I had come to reexperience live theater and that these infractions are part of the deal, as ineradicable as defiant texting and crinkly candy wrappers.

The high level of the show, preserving the kinetic magic of Thomas Kail's direction and Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography, helped assuage the tension. I was almost surprised by how good it was. Usually, after a certain number of iterations away from Broadway, the quality declines. But the singing of this national tour production, starring Jamael Westman (who played the show’s title role in London, receiving an Olivier nomination), is as good as I’ve heard anywhere.

Beyoncé would no doubt be impressed by the sweetness of the melodies emanating from Joanna A. Jones, who plays Alexander Hamilton’s wife, Eliza. When she sweeps across the stage with her sisters, Sabrina Sloan’s fierce Angelica and Taylor Iman Jones’ pert Peggy, the seductive R&B energy kicks into tantalizing musical theater gear, reminding us all of what we’ve been missing.

“Hamilton” is dramatically built around numbers that only seem to get better on repeat viewing. Rory O’Malley turns up the daftness on King George’s 1960s-style British pop ditties with royal aplomb.

Nicholas Christopher’s Aaron Burr delivers the stomping heat in “The Room Where It Happens,” the song in which this careful political operator gives us a glimpse of his murderous ambition. Carvens Lissaint finds the gospel glory in “One Last Time,” George Washington’s principled political farewell. And Simon Longnight, who plays both Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, can’t compete with the memory of Daveed Diggs, but he excels in rapping humorous ripostes and clever badinage.

Westman’s Hamilton, slightly underpowered in the early going, cuts a deepening poetic figure as Hamilton’s tragic end draws near. The character’s inner life is held up in this tender portrayal like a chamber illuminated by the glow of a bedside candle

One question I had is how well “Hamilton” would hold up in an era that is vastly different from when this musical first burst on the scene in 2015. President Obama has long been out of office, Donald Trump’s Twitter microphone has been turned off, and we’re still processing the racial reckoning that is the lasting legacy of George Floyd’s unconscionable death.

Miranda has been criticized for whitewashing the founding fathers’ slaveholding history. The politics of the show, as I pointed out when I first encountered the work off-Broadway at the Public Theater, are less incisive than the musical’s theatrical style.

But I continue to believe that, in performance, the casting of actors of color in historically white roles overwhelmingly communicates to audiences a message of equality, fairness and democratic meaning that is impossible to argue with. The musical for me hasn’t aged a day.

In fact, it continues to speak directly to our moment. The one time I felt my eyes getting noticeably moist was when the battle in the Revolutionary War suddenly and unexpectedly swung in the direction of the rebel forces.

What, I wondered darkly, are we fighting for today? The guy across from me was defending his right to not wear a mask. The insurgents who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 were stampeding for the right to overturn a free and fair election and install a tin-pot dictator.

I couldn’t help also reflecting on the troops in Afghanistan who died this week trying to assist in the evacuation of those fleeing the Taliban. These Americans seemed to me to have more in common with our founders than all the political loudmouths who have lost any sense of the common good.

“Hamilton,” when you’re ready to return to the theater, is worth another look.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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