Tuesday, August 25, 2015

NYC Theater Reviews—Broadway's "Hamilton" and Off-Broadway's "Love & Money"

Book, music & lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda; directed by Thomas Kail
Performances began July 13, 2015
Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street, New York, NY

Love & Money
Written by A.R. Gurney; directed by Mark Lamos
Performances through October 4, 2015
Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Renee Elise Goldsberry, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Phillipa Soo in Hamilton (photo: Joan Marcus)
There is so much that's good about Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda's rollicking musical about one of our least-known Founding Fathers, that it's too bad that the show is not the instant classic so many are touting it as.

Unlike In the Heights, Miranda's breakthrough show—and the "game-changer" for musicals that everyone is belatedly saying Hamilton is—whose hip-hop inflected songs were actual emotional outpourings of its characters, the rapping rhymes of Hamilton, Jefferson, Burr and Washington sit uneasily on their tongues. Admittedly, what Sherman Edwards composed for his Founding Fathers in 1776 wasn't any more authentic, but those men (as portrayed by the likes of William Daniels and Howard da Silva) at least retained their dignity, while the characters in Hamilton sometimes approach parody. 

That's especially true of King George III, whose sardonic appearances as, first, the colonies' ruler, later a defeated monarch, and lastly a bemused and amused observer of the new nation puts the show dangerously close to silly Something Rotten territory, however deliciously Jonathan Groff embodies the British tyrant.

Miranda's lyrics are clever—often very clever—but also flirt with the sophomoric: "raise the glass to the four of us/tomorrow there'll be more of us" isn't the most inspiring couplet. Miranda's score mainly soars when the entire cast sings variations of "whoa whoa" and Thomas Kail's extraordinarily savvy directing and Andy Blankenbuehler's astounding choreography come to the rescue. 

In fact, the staging and movement in this show are so prominent that it's almost too much. There are precious few moments when characters are allowed to just sing without being upstaged by other doings—and the large stage turntables, stairs and a second tier that allow for even more movement throughout—and so the nearly three-hour Hamilton becomes, quite literally, exhausting.

It's unfortunate: shorn of 25-30 minutes, Hamilton would be the astute and theatrically exciting analysis of our country's complex, multi-hued early history that it's being described as. As it is, it's at times exhilarating and always entertaining; even Miranda's stumbling attempts at profundity—the thick irony of "My Shot," the recurring duels, the wedding rewind, the bathetic summing-up finale—work well onstage, thanks to Kail and Blankenbuehler's breathtakingly inventive and cohesive visual structure, upon which Miranda's ambitious if not fully realized musical concept sits.

The indefatigable cast is tremendous, led by Miranda's self-confident Hamilton, Renee Elise Goldsberry's golden-voiced sister-in-law Angelica, Phillipa Soo's gorgeous-sounding wife Eliza, Daveed Diggs's strutting Thomas Jefferson and Leslie Odom, Jr.'s charmingly villainous Aaron Burr, whose own complicated history deserves a show of its own someday.

Maureen Anderman in Love & Money (photo: Joan Marcus)
One of his most featherweight works, A.R. Gurney's Love & Money touches on this eloquent playwright's pet themes of the foibles of the rich and entitled in such a way that, at a mere 75 minutes, it's a mere blueprint for a more incisive play.

Sharply directed by Mark Lamos, Gurney's comedy introduces Cornelia Cunningham (an excellent Maureen Anderman), an Upper East Side widow about to enter an old folks' home for the affluent—there are even retired professors!—who has decided to give much of her wealth away to many charitable organizations. When her lawyer Harvey Abel (an amusingly flustered Joe Paulik) arrives to go over details of her will and trust (her children are dead and her two grandchildren are, she says, not entitled to much), he also brings her a letter from a young man in Buffalo, who insists he is her long-lost grandson.

A little later, Walker Williams (an unfortunately charmless Gabriel Brown) arrives and, after surprising them with the color of his skin, charms the pants off Cornelia, who acts like she believes his story of being the offspring of an affair between Cornelia's daughter and his father during a trip to Manhattan. Her skeptical lawyer digs up informaton that puts Walker's story under a microscope, while Cornelia's loyal maid Agnes (Pamela Dunlap, typical but funny) is also not fooled by the interloper.

Whether Walker is in fact her grandson or not is not the point—it does get resolved, by the way—instead, the play is an excuse for Gurney to provide jokes and observations about class, race, affluence, education and culture, none very penetrating but amusing at times, summed up by Cornelia's rather pedestrian quip about her lack of interracial romance: "The closest I've ever come to an affair with a black man is to vote for Obama."

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