SALT LAKE CITY — It seems strange to think of a time when there was not extreme buzz about Hamilton, and excitement all around when one learned that a tour was coming to town. Even after the original Broadway production, which opened in August of 2015, was filmed and released on Disney+ for the world to see, Hamilton is still the hottest ticket in town, Covid notwithstanding. Broadway has had many struggles with keeping cast and crew safe during these times, and many shows have had postponements and cancellations over the last few weeks. As Broadway’s most popular show visits Utah, some of these same concerns loom over this ever popular production.
Recently, a controversy erupted over some statements that the head of the Broadway League made regarding the capability of standbys, swings, and understudies. So, it was apropos that on press night of Hamilton in Salt Lake City the iconic and challenging role of Aaron Burr was played by standby Deaundre Woods, and fellow standby Milika Cheree played the characters Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds. (Standbys, swings, and understudies are trained in one or more roles and expected to be able to step into any prepared role with little notice for a performance to go smoothly.) Because many audience members forget that professional theatre is a business, with actors having lives, illnesses, and emergencies, these actors are the backbone of the success of long-running productions, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Woods as Burr is a perfect example of just how skilled these performers are, and how lucky an audience is to be able to see them when we attend a show. Woods’s carefully collected approach to the character of Burr was as nuanced and well executed as if he played the role 8 times per week. (He also has the roles of Alexander Hamilton, Mulligan/Madison, and Philip/Laurens in his repertoire and can play them when needed.) His rendition of the iconic song “Wait for It” left me breathless by the end, and his take on the “Room Where It Happens” was memorable.
While the roles of Peggy and Maria are not as central to the story as Burr, Cheree merits just as much praise for her portrayal and skill. (And she is prepared to play Eliza and Angelica whenever necessary.) While some people express disappointment when seeing the understudy or standby in a production, I can attest that in Hamilton, audiences see a performance that is just as good or better than one that features the regular performers. This was my fifth time seeing a live version of Hamilton, and it was one of the best.
Darnell Abraham was another standout performer, thanks to his glorious portrayal of the pride of Mount Vernon, George Washington. As I have worked to learn and grow as a theatre critic over the years, I have tried to take each performance on its own merits, but I confess an unhealthy love for the original George Washington (Chris Jackson) and a struggle for others that have followed to live up to the need to, as the show says “loom quite as large.” Abraham, however, was absolutely up to the task, and indeed, he blew me away with his performance. His awe-inspiring abilities were in full bloom during the song “One Last Time,” where his understated beginning was a fantastic way to build to his crushing ending.
As Alexander Hamilton, Julius Thomas III put a different spin to the role, giving the character an early naivety that allowed for some lovely character throughout the show. Victoria Ann Scoves as Eliza Hamilton remained so stoic and collected throughout the performance that her emotions in the second act, especially in “Burn,” “Stay Alive,” and “It’s Quiet Uptown” were all the more poignant and relevant. Speaking of “It’s Quiet Uptown,” Marja Harmon as Angelica Schuyler, had a voice and mannerisms that struck such an emotional chord that some audience members were openly weeping around me.
The production was not without its flaws. King George, played by Rick Negron, fell flat, which was disappointing because that character has some of the best moments of comedic relief. Likewise, Parix Nix, as Lafayette and Jefferson, was skilled enough, but had a take on the character that was disappointing and bland in comparison to the rest of the cast.
While a recording of Hamilton is available on Disney+, but this production of Hamilton is a reminder that nothing beats live theatre. From the intense rush one feels when the orchestra starts, to the ability to choose what to focus on instead of relying on the directors visual choices, this production is worth audience members’ time. While I certainly hope digital theatre does not go away, thank goodness for live theatre—and the standbys, understudies, and crew backstage that make it all possible for us to be “in the room where it happens.”