Hamilton, Bristol Hippodrome

IF you describe opera as being a story set to music which has virtually no spoken word, then this rap-style, sung through musical is an opera. Such a description would not be welcomed with open arms by the producers, because, whereas modern and classical ballet have, to the benefit of each, embraced each other, classical and modern opera are still miles apart. For all that they have little or no spoken dialogue, shows like Les Misérables and Evita, as is this outstanding piece of theatre, are all classed as musicals.

The arguments are long and complex as to why this is the case, but if you spoke to the vast majority of the capacity house assembled at the Bristol Hippodrome, some having booked their tickets nearly a year in advance, they would tell you that they never attended opera, but this was something very different. And in so much as the musical content which, in addition to rap, has elements of hip-hop, R’n’B, soul, pop and traditional show songs, it is indeed light years from classical opera.

The way in which it is delivered, perfectly balanced, by the orchestra under the direction of Zach Fils, and the singers, sung with great passion and vocal skill by soloists and ensemble, matches the best presentation of a full operatic company and orchestra.

The story of the rise and fall of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s Foundling Fathers, has all the ingredients of a Greek tragedy. Triumph as he helps to free the colony from British rule, happy marriage and children ruined by an extra-marital affair, tragic death of his 19-year-old son in a duel, and fall from grace after holding the office of the first Secretary of the American Treasury, to death in another duel.

Author, lyricist and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda conveys all this in the rapper narration and lyrics – and much more of the personal relationships and political in-fighting. He was also the first actor to play the title role. Porto Rican born Miranda wanted to showcase racial diversity, casting non-white actors in the original. This production continues that tradition, with the main exception being Daniel Boys expertly judged portrait of the mentally suspect King George III.

Not for the first time in historical biographies, the leading characters faults tend to be sanitised, but showing a passionate belief in all he hoped the new country could achieve, Shaq Taylor created a Hamilton on whose side the whole audience wanted to be. You wanted his lovely wife Eliza, played with delicate charm by Maya Britto, to forgive his sexual dalliances, which she did.

Always standing by to repair family breakages was Aisha Jawando as Eliza’s sister Angelica, with vocal contributions to match her poised personality. Also ever-present was Sam Oladeinde’s Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s friend, rival and final destroyer. Whilst Oladeinde skilfully showed the personal conflicts. Billy Nevers, and KM Drew Boateng as Thomas Jefferson and James Maddison, gave us a reminder that political intrigue was as dirty in those days as it is today.

We are asked to believe that, true to the story of chopping down the cherry tree, George Washington is aloof, and was played with quite calm by Charles Simmons, far removed from such dishonesty.

The staging, lightning and costumes are something very special, with the choreographer and director making excellent use of the revolve on stage, and a first class dancing and singing ensemble. Whatever title you want to give it – opera, musical or unique hybrid – Hamilton, even for those who are not fans of these styles of music, is a theatrical experience that comes around all too rarely.


Photographs by Danny Kaan

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