Hamilton Review: National Touring Company

Tell me if you’ve ever experienced this before…

All of your friends, as well as pretty much every professional critic online and in the press, have hyped something—a TV show, a movie, a book, or whatever—to the point where you think, “OK, I’ve got to see this.”

And then, when the day arrives and you sit down to watch the show or read the book, you get to the end of it and reflect on the experience. But instead of being blown away, your first thought is, “Huh? That was really good, but seriously… it wasn’t that good. At least it wasn’t a waste of time.”

I’ve finally seen Hamilton live, and I can definitively say that the above scenario is NOT the case with this show. In fact, just the opposite happened for me. I departed the Durham Performing Arts Center last Friday night thinking about how much richer, and how much more beautiful, funny, heartbreaking, and—most surprisingly—relevant Hamilton is in this particular moment. Lin-Manuel Miranda should enjoy the accolades and awards and income streams that he has received thanks to this show. He should relish them as part of an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience, because Hamilton is a once-in-a-lifetime show. It is his masterpiece, and I am pretty sure that he will never again write something at this ridiculously high level of artistic quality.

Where to begin?

I should divulge up front that I am a huge fan of the Original Cast Recording. By “huge,” I mean that I have roughly 75-80% of the show memorized. I can start singing at the beginning and make it all the way to Alexander’s interjections in “Farmer Refuted” without missing a single syllable of anyone’s part. So Hamilton is not exactly an unknown for me going into the live performance for the first time.

Considered in isolation, the music is a brilliant tapestry of disparate musical genres woven together with such skill that you don’t really notice that you’ve jumped from lyrical hip hop to modern Broadway introspective soliloquy to ’40s-style dance-sequence showstopper to ’60s British pop and back to ’90s & early ’00s rap battles. It flows seamlessly, and the genres themselves often inform or expand upon the action and the characters’ motivations. The various components work together to reinforce and magnify the impact of each other.

Here is one example of this carefully calculated relationship between musical genre, plot, and character. When Thomas Jefferson comes back from France to kick off Act 2, he tells us that he has “basically missed the late ‘80s.” (1780s, that is.) His entrance song is a big, old school jazz production number full of boogie-woogie bass lines, ragtime syncopations, and Southern flair. Throw in some James Brown soul and a touch of funk, and you’ve got Thomas Jefferson’s musical style before he’s up to speed on the situation in Hamilton. We’re in on the joke that a lot has changed since he left these shores for Europe, because everyone else is speaking and singing in more modern rap, R&B, and hip hop styles. Jefferson has got some musical (and expositional) catching up to do, because he’s way behind the times!

Thankfully for the plot, Jefferson is a quick study. By his first cabinet meeting, he throws down mad rhymes in a rap battle with Hamilton over whether or not the Federal government should assume the States’ debts. This newly informed and fully in-control Jefferson speaks fluent 8 Mile and will not be bested by anyone. He even gives us a laugh-out-loud, literal mic drop as he closes his argument — a great touch in the live show. As if to prove the point, he closes his argument in the second cabinet meeting with a Biggie Smalls quote (“Hey, and if ya don’t know, now ya know”).

There is no question that the music can stand on its own.

But this live performance by the National Touring Company at DPAC demonstrated to me how much better the music and lyrics are when placed in the larger context of the stage action, the dance, and the free wheeling characterizations of amazingly skilled performers.

Consider the case of “Burn,” Eliza Hamilton’s poignant song after she learns of Alexander’s infidelity in Act 2. I’ve always considered that piece something of a let down on the cast recording. It seems small and pedestrian, as if a larger and angrier piece was called for in that situation.

But seen in person, “Burn” strikes just the right chords of disillusion, anguish, and pain turned inward. Shoba Narayan’s gorgeous slow burn—culminating in a stuttering, half-cried/half-sung “you, you…  you!” while she literally burns Alexander’s love letters to her, one by one—rips your guts out. It’s as if she runs out of words to say, right in front of your eyes. I’ll admit it… that moment, combined with “Satisfied” and the “Finale,” made Hamilton join Les Misérables as the only musical theater pieces that have ever moved me to tears on first viewing. The emotions are real, and you feel them deeply. (OK, I’m excluding a few operas and chamber/symphonic works by Brahms, Mahler, Ravel, and Walton that get me every time. Those of you who know me well know that music speaks deeply to me.)

Speaking of “Satisfied,” seeing Hamilton on stage magnifies how central Angelica Schuyler is to the entire show. As she rewinds the story of her and her sister’s first introduction to Alexander Hamilton, Ta’Rea Campbell’s Beyoncé-like Angelica lays bare the inner conflicts that set the stage for later moments. She is in love with her sister’s husband, and the action on stage shows us how Angelica continues to be Alexander’s political muse, even after she moves to England. Eliza is Alexander’s domesticity, his refuge, and his escape; Angelica is his fire, his coach, and his intellectual sparring partner.

Angelica also gives us the first direct echo of modern issues in her entrance scene, when she declares, “We hold these truths to be self-evident / that all men are created equal / and when I meet Thomas Jefferson / I’ma compel him to include women in the sequel! (Work!)” That line elicited cheers of support in the theater the night I attended, and it wouldn’t be the last moment in Hamilton when the audience interrupted the show with applause specifically because the characters addressed current political debates and offered perspectives on them. The action in the story might take place 200 years ago, but some of those early debates and challenges are still with us.

The biggest cheers of the night in this regard were reserved for the Marquis de Lafayette and Hamilton himself — a Frenchman and a Caribbean-born immigrant—high fiving each other as they say, with clear intent, “Immigrants—we get the job done!” Cue the applause as the audience interrupts to let us know that Hamilton is just as much about the elections of 2018 and 2020 as it is about the election of 1800.

That is perhaps the singular genius of Hamilton: it is the ultimate extended episode of Schoolhouse Rock (I can’t hear parts of it without thinking “I’m just a bill…”), but with commentary on today’s issues, insights on timeless aspects of the human condition, laugh-out-loud humor that actually works, and a wide musical vocabulary that speaks 1960 as well as it speaks 2018.

What was different or a surprise about the live show?

First let me say the Joseph Morales is unbelievably great in the lead role. I was terrified that no one other than Lin-Manuel Miranda could ever do justice to the part. I was wrong to think that. Morales has a slightly different spin on aspects of the role and emphasizes certain words in the lyrics in new and interesting ways. Overall, his Hamilton is a triumph. I could not have been happier with his work.

The biggest difference for devotees of the Original Cast Recording, by far, is Nik Walker‘s take on Aaron Burr.

Let’s start with the original. Leslie Odom’s Burr is a smooth talker. As one character in the show sings, he makes you feel “like you could grab a beer with him.” He’s a plucky bad guy with lots of heart and lots of reservations. Someone you root for at times, even though you know deep down that you should hate that you’re rooting for him.

As the National Touring Company’s Burr, Walker gives us more of a smooth criminal than a smooth talker. You might grab a beer with this Burr, but you would constantly be careful about what you say to him, because he will probably use it against you in the future for his own gain.

Walker’s Burr is hushed but menacing—not a completely one-note villain, but certainly a more dangerous, calculating rogue than Odom’s sunnier version. He is friendly but manipulative, and you never doubt that he’s a bad guy. For me, he’s neither better nor worse than Odom’s more nuanced Burr, just different. It made the Burr-Hamilton relationship seem more antagonistic than I had imagined. Walker’s singing is lighter in depth but darker in tone than Odom’s, and this combination worked especially well in “Dear Theodosia” and “Wait For It,” the second of which brought down the house. Walker’s immense talent was on full display in that moment. That said, I prefer Odom’s reading of “The Room Where It Happens.”

Finally, John Patrick Walker has taken King George and completely made him his own. His comedic timing was brilliant! He had me laughing hard, even though I knew which lines were coming. It was all in the delivery, which was superb. When he dances across the stage and dumps a stack of copies of the Reynolds Pamphlet on Alexander’s head, it is pure comedy gold. Then Kyle Scatliffe’s Thomas Jefferson uses his stack of pamphlets to “make it rain” right in poor Alex’s face, and the pandemonium reaches its fevered peak. Brilliant!

My only regret is that I do not have tickets to another show between now and the end of its run in town. I left the theater on a high, and three days later I’m still in that elevated mental space. The experience was exceptional.

I cannot wait to see Hamilton again!

In the Steps of My History


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Gaspar Papi House, #36 Avilés St., St Augustine, FL

Gaspar Papi House, #36 Avilés St., St Augustine, FL

It is not often that you can step across a threshold and enter the house that your 5-times great grandfather built & lived in. I was fortunate enough to experience that goosebump-inducing time warp in Old St. Augustine, FL. This two-room white coquina house—one upstairs room, one downstairs—is a testament to the determination and will of my ancestor, Gaspar Papi, who overcame incredible hardships to amass quite an estate.

Gaspar Papi House, interior

Gaspar Papi House, interior

Gaspar Papi was born to Greek parents in Smyrna, Turkey sometime between 1746 and 1751. He came to the New World among my Minorcan ancestors (the Andreu, Capella, Duran, and Pons families) as a part of the Andrew Turnbull colony at New Smyrna. After a decade of indentured servitude, he was freed with the rest of the colonists and ultimately became one of the more affluent Minorcans in St. Augustine.

Coquina fireplace

Coquina fireplace

Standing inside his house was a surreal experience for me… a circling back in the grand spiral of history, a moment when great-great-great-great-great grandson stood, iPhone & Canon T3i in hand, completely awestruck by the moment. This all came courtesy of the generosity and hospitality of the Sisters of St. Joseph, who now own the house. My special thanks to them!

Garden-facing rear of the house

Garden-facing rear of the house

Pirate relics


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Navigational instruments from Queen Anne's Revenge

Navigational instruments recovered from Blackbeard’s flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge

You cannot live in North Carolina very long without learning about the state’s place in colonial pirate lore. The most famous privateer to prowl our coasts was Edward Teach (or Thatch), more commonly called Blackbeard.

In late 1717, Blackbeard attacked and commandeered the French merchant ship La Concorde. After dumping the frigate’s crew and cargo at Bequia, he renamed her Queen Anne’s Revenge. Almost 180 years later, in November 1996, the submerged remnants of Queen Anne’s Revenge were discovered under sand and a mere 25 feet of water near Fort Macon State Park. It is now designated as NC Shipwreck site 31CR314, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.

Since then, salvageable items from Queen Anne’s Revenge have been recovered and preserved by the QAR Conservation Laboratory at East Carolina University. Items that have been cleaned and prepared are on display at the NC Maritime Museum in Beaufort.

Queen Anne's Revenge Exhibit Banner

Blackbeard Exhibit at the NC Maritime Museum, Beaufort, NC

Our children have been pleading for us to take them to Beaufort to see the artifacts for a while now, so we recently made the trek over to the coast. The following pictures are just a tiny sample of the items that are on display. Enjoy!

One of the two bells from Blackbeard's flagship

One of the two bells from Blackbeard’s flagship

Shot recovered from the wreckage

Shot recovered from the wreckage

Several cannons have been recovered from the ocean floor

Several cannons have been recovered from the ocean floor

Plate lunch (for dinner)


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Hawaii/Old North State Mashup

Hawaii/Old North State Mashup

As she often does, my eldest daughter (Foodie Girl) had a dinner request the other day: “Daddy, can we have a summery dinner tonight… maybe something that reminds me of Hawaii?” How can a parent say no to that? Nordic Babe was completely on board with the idea and quickly procured some lilikoi juice.

I leapt into action and the resulting meal appears above; it was a Carolina take on Hawaiian plate lunch. (Side note: if you have never seen Sarah Vowell’s short meditation on the history of plate lunch, go check it out. Right. Now.) Yes, the expected sticky rice and mayonnaise-laden macaroni salad took up residence on our table. Pig was also featured, but instead of the usual kalua pig I substituted pulled pork BBQ in a tangy Western Carolina-style sauce. I thought about finishing the meal with hush puppies, but King’s Hawaiian sweet rolls won the day.

It was a hit with Foodie Girl and her siblings, Artist Chick and Zen Buddy. Washed down with a Longboard Island Lager from Kona Brewing Company, this was the perfect lunch-dinner for a summer evening.*

* Note: Due to the carb load, an extra 20 min. of interval training was warranted after consumption.


Norwegian nature


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Reinheim National Park's astounding beauty

Norway’s astounding beauty (near Reinheimen National Park)
Click the picture to view a high resolution version.

A little bend in the river caught my attention, and the resulting photo captured the deep, rich greens and blues of the scene with surprising accuracy. This was one of those moments where I knew the picture would never do justice to the view… and yet, in the end, it does.

The August light played beautifully and gently on the water’s surface; that much is clear from the photo. But what’s missing is equally important. From behind the camera, the feeling of being so small and so insignificant in the face of the vast scope and scale of nature was overwhelming.

And that shared human experience is ultimately beyond the reach of the lens.

The perfect cup — found?


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Tieguanyin leaves after four steepings

Tieguanyin leaves after four steepings

Thanks to the generosity of a good friend, I recently discovered a tea that has become my favorite. I am now on a mission to seek it out whenever and wherever I can. Although new to me, it is quite well-known, boasting a long and proud history in China.

Tieguanyin (“Iron Goddess of Mercy”) is a variety of oolong, but I find its flavor to be somewhere between an oolong and a green tea. Imagine, if you will, all of the attractiveness of a crisp green tea with a bit more of a floral note—and none of the bitterness.

But the most amazing thing about this tea is the way the resilient leaves unfurl and stand up to repeated steeping. This tieguanyin provided different flavors and complexities as I worked through—wait for it—twelve steepings of the same leaves! It started more like a green tea, but as it progressed through the night, the tea grew creamier and unleashed a powerful floral sweetness.

It now takes its place next to Westmalle Tripel and Franciscan Magnificat as my beverages of choice when I am in the mood for a treat. Do you have any tips or tricks for preparing tieguanyin? Please share!

The perfect cup? Who cares—it was spectacular!

The perfect cup? Who cares—it is spectacular!

Troll peaks


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Trollveggen, on the train from Åndalsnes to Trondheim

On the train from Åndalsnes to Trondheim

The beauty of Reinheimen National Park in Norway is overwhelming. Attempting to capture it in photographs is almost as pointless as trying to capture the experience of standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon and looking out over the expanse. So of course I had to try. Over and over and over!

This rock formation includes the famous Trollveggen (immediately out of frame on the right), the tallest vertical rock face in Europe. The lip at the top of the wall actually extends 160 ft. beyond the base, making it both an awe-inspiring sight and a magnet for base jumpers and other thrill seekers. This picture gives a different perspective of the scene—one I am sure I will never see.

Leek tart


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Jambon, gruyère, and leeks at the ready

Jambon, gruyère, and leeks at the ready

The leeks in the refrigerator are calling out to me. Listening closely to the muffled sounds emanating from behind the closed door, I think they are saying “Flamiche aux poireaux, s’il vous plaît,” although they often say “Potage parmentier.” But not today. 🙂

Few cookbooks have gotten as much use in our house as Patricia Well’s Bistro CookingIt is full of outstanding French bistro fare that is surprisingly simple to prepare—even if it is often time-consuming, alas. To name but two of our favorites, my wife (hereafter known as Nordic Babe) does a mean Gratin Dauphinois Madame Cartet, and I am in love with the Poulet Rôti L’Ami Louis. The simplicity of these dishes lets the flavors of the ingredients come through in all their purity without much in the way of distraction.

Now I need to decide on a fitting Alsatian wine (Zind-Humbrecht Riesling perhaps?) to go with a cheesy, leeky tart… bon appétit!

Translucent moons


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- Moon jellyfish, Discovery Place, Charlotte, NC

Moon jellyfish, Discovery Place, Charlotte, NC

Another view from another aquarium. These dreamy jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) kept our children fascinated for about 15 minutes, hypnotically floating and drifting through the inky darkness.

Jellyfish are fairly common along the North Carolina coast. Our water temperatures are rising each year, causing their population to increase at a rapid pace. Appalachian State University now has a website (called Jelly Stalkers) dedicated to tracking jellyfish sightings along the NC coast; it’s certainly worth a quick browse. Their interactive map lets you view sightings by species or by month.

Capturing the delicate patterns and lacy tendrils in such low light required cranking the ISO up to 3200. I was worried about color noise in the image while I was shooting, but the result was better that I expected. The luminosity of the creatures let me keep the shutter speed at 1/125, which helped matters significantly.

Fearful symmetry


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American Alligator, North Carolina Aquarium, Pine Knoll Shores, NC

American Alligator, North Carolina Aquarium, Pine Knoll Shores, NC

Ah, the challenges of shooting pictures at an aquarium! Light (or rather, the lack thereof), distortions, water, glass, reflections, constantly-moving creatures: it’s both a dream and a nightmare. An aquarium provides endless practice and is a great way to hone your craft. Besides, the children will want to see pictures of those dreamy jellyfish six months from now, and daddy is loath to disappoint them.

This alligator cooperated and stayed still long enough for me to set up the shot. I am struck by the way this picture captures the beauty of danger. The gator’s fearful symmetry—its brutal power hidden behind a placid façade—is almost mesmerizing.

If you are not familiar with Mary Oliver’s “Alligator Poem,” I highly recommend seeking it out. That text lives at the nexus of beauty, danger, nature, and vulnerability. She uses the threat of an alligator as a catalyst for personal transformation—altering the way she views the world around her.

More aquarium photos to come…