A review of the biggest Columbus theatrical event of the year (and maybe of any other year)

I’ve seen several blockbuster touring shows during the nearly three decades I’ve covered the Columbus theater scene: “Wicked,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Miss Saigon” and others. I’m used to the excited anticipation I sense from the crowd at such events. But something feels different when I arrive at the Ohio Theatre on Wednesday night to see “Hamilton.” And it’s not just because the temperature outside hovers around a frostbite-inducing zero degrees. It has something to do with the show itself.

The earlier productions were Broadway extravaganzas that viewers were eager to see for the first time—or even the second or third for those who occasionally ventured onto the Great White Way. And “Hamilton”? It’s a Broadway phenomenon for sure, having been a hit there since graduating from off-Broadway in mid-2015. But Lin-Manuel Miranda’s multi-Tony-winning creation also feels like a piece of Americana. Besides being a salute to our least-appreciated Founding Father, it’s the story of our country’s birth as retold with a multicultural spin and an ingenious blend of rap and other musical genres.

As such, “Hamilton” seems like essential viewing for all Americans. Yet its very popularity has meant that many have been stymied in their attempts to see it. Like me, they’ve tried to buy tickets in New York and elsewhere, only to find they’re sold out for months into the future. Even in Columbus, where a national tour began a three-week run on Tuesday, tickets are hard to come by. After scoring media passes to see the show Wednesday, I check the Ticketmaster listings and learn that only five seats remain unfilled for that performance—all of them “verified resale tickets.”  

Maybe that explains why the atmosphere feels so different when I arrive at the Ohio Theatre on Wednesday night. Rather than the giddy excitement I’ve witnessed at other blockbuster performances, I sense that many patrons share my feeling of quiet gratitude that their months or years of patience and determination have finally paid off. I turn to one of the two men with identical white beards sitting next to me and ask if they had trouble finding tickets. “We had season tickets, so it was all in the plan,” the nearer one says. I then ask if they’ve seen the show before. “No,” he replies, “but not for lack of trying.”

Like others, I suspect, I’ve thoroughly prepared myself for the performance, listening to the original Broadway soundtrack for fear I’ll be unable to understand the rapped phrases that sometimes tumble off the stage at breakneck speed. Once the performance begins, however, I realize my fears were unfounded. The amplified sound is crisp and clear, and though I may have missed an occasional word or a joke without all the prep, it’s easy to follow the plot.

We’re immediately introduced to the titular hero (Edred Utomi), who was born to a single mom in the West Indies and moved to New York as a young man to help forge a new country out of what was then a British colony. We also meet other would-be revolutionaries, as well as the more cautious Aaron Burr (Alexander Ferguson), who admits prophetically that he’s the “damn fool” who will one day shoot Hamilton. All of this I already know, from both the soundtrack and from long-ago American history classes.

What I don’t learn until the curtain rises is that the show’s visuals are as intricate and complex as Miranda’s harmonies and wordplay. Thomas Kail’s direction and Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography maintain a constant state of motion that elegantly complements the rapped and sung lyrics. David Korins’s scenery, Howell Binkley’s lighting design and Paul Tazewell’s costume designs complete the handsome and never-static stage pictures.

By the end of Act 1, most of the central characters have been introduced. Besides Hamilton and Burr, they include the harried General George Washington (Paul Oakley Stovall), the very French Marquis de Lafayette (Bryson Bruce) and the two Schuyler sisters who love Hamilton, Eliza (Hannah Cruz) and Angelica (played on Wednesday by understudy Jennie Harney-Fleming, filling in for Stephanie Umoh). We’ve also met the show’s comedy relief, King George (a royally delightful Peter Matthew Smith).

By intermission, my date and I are feeling very lucky that we’ve finally gotten to see this enthralling history lesson. Feeling even luckier is someone I happen to meet in the concession area. “We bought tickets today,” says the blond woman, revealing that she and her boyfriend managed to capture two of the performance’s few remaining seats. “But we paid an enormous amount of money,” she frets, adding that they spent about $200 apiece. No doubt many patrons paid much more, I tell her.

As Act 2 begins, we meet the final central character, a high-stepping Thomas Jefferson (Lafayette portrayer Bruce, one of several actors who do double duty). Hamilton’s life also begins its slide toward the final tragedy foretold in Act 1. But first he has to deal with the consequences of a marital indiscretion and the dangerous volatility of his teenage son (Jon Viktor Corpuz). It all leads to a devastating finale that’s both sad and uplifting.

Is “Hamilton” the biggest touring show Columbus has ever seen? It’s impossible to tell, says Rolanda Copley, spokeswoman for the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts, which is sponsoring the run along with Broadway in Columbus. She explains that it’s hard to compare various touring shows because their runs vary in length and venues vary in size. She does allow, via email, that “Hamilton” is the “hottest and most popular show CAPA/Broadway in Columbus has brought to Columbus in recent years.”

That’s undoubtedly true. And it’s undeniably true that “Hamilton” is one of the most exciting and profound theatrical experience I’ve ever had.

Richard Ades, a frequent contributor to Columbus Monthly, was the theater critic for The Other Paper during its entire 23-year run. He now reviews theater at his website, ColumbusTheater.org.

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