BUM BUM BA DA BUM BUM BUM OO-OO-OOH. Hamilton may not have an overture, as few modern shows do, but you really can’t beat those opening notes for getting your blood pumping and your excitement levels through the roof. I was pretty calm in the weeks leading up to seeing the new London production of Hammertime. Maybe because we bought our tickets literally a year ago so my excitement waned after the first few months; maybe I couldn’t be excited because I was too nervous that the delay in opening (our tickets were now the week of opening instead of weeks after it) was due to quality concerns and not just because the theatre refurbishment wasn’t ready; maybe it’s because I saw the original cast and didn’t have high hopes for how London would measure up or maybe I was just worried that British accents would seep through. (American accents are notoriously bad here. I feel probably how british people feel watching Broadway actors do british accents.) Regardless of the reason, I was trying to be chill aquafaba and not get my hopes up too much. It’s just another show, right? But those opening notes, man alive, I DARE you to try to stay calm when they thump through. It’s impossible and I immediately smiled the biggest smile I ever have smiled and let myself be as excited as I ought to have been. It’s not just another show; we all know that by now. It had the fastest transfer to the West End ever (and had two tours start in the meantime) for a reason. It is the best, and no matter what issues this production has, it’s still the best thing over here.
The second important thing that let me unhunch my shoulders just a tad was that Giles Terera, as Aaron Burr, made clear right off the bat that he has the best enunciation I ever heard. It’s so clear and perfect without sounding forced and without sacrificing any of the musicality. I worried before about whether the 2 or 3 people who don’t know all the words would be able to follow what’s going on, but luckily Giles’s impeccable diction made his rapping as clear as day. True, it also helps that many parts of the show are an almost-unobservable touch slower than they are in the USA, but while this sucks, it’s not a huge deal if it helps the slower british brains stay with it. (Get it that’s a joke because they’re brains aren’t slower so like wtf (that’s a why not a what) is this necessary?)
Speaking of British brains, one of the most enjoyable aspects of this production was simply noticing what parts got more laughs, or less response, than lines in New York. Like, even though everyone absolutely adores King George, the audience responded even more to the line "When you're gone, I'll go mad" because they were like "oh how positively brillliant, he does indeed go mad! huhhah!" And there was a definite murmur of recognition when Alexander sings "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day", because everyone in England knows every line of Shakespeare, apparently, and they did NOT need for him to clarify in the next line that he was talking about Macbeth. These people knew.
So anyway, back to the start, we know that Burr is going to be fantastic from the start, or at least we know he will be understandable. What about the rest? The meeting of the three friends – Hercules Mulligan, Lafayette, and John Laurens – is one of my favorite parts, and all three were pretty strong in that first scene. As John Laurens, Cleve September (I know it’s like a Tori Amos or Fiona Apple song, an erma name) looks scarily similar to the original cast’s Anthony Ramos, and I really don’t think that’s just me being racist. He really gave off the same vibe and had such a similar face that I was like yesss this is good. He did a great job as Laurens and then in the second act as Phillip. As usual, the sight of a grown ass man playing a nine-year-old boy was lovably hysterical as always, and then of course heartbreaking. He was solid the whole show. As for the second and most joyful member of the gang, Lafayette had to go in a completely different direction from the og cast, and rightly so, because no one can ever touch Daveed Diggs. He was the breakout star from the show and created such an iconic performance that to try to emulate it would be foolish. Instead, Jason Pennycooke gave Lafayette a whole new vibe. First of all I think he is half the size of Daveed, which gives him a little bit of an impish spirit, which worked. He uses his size well and creates this mischievous sort of rascal in both Lafayette and Jefferson (of course in different ways). His French accent was great, probably because all British people can speak French, and his physicality added a lot of fun to the portrayal. It helps that he is a professional choreographer too, so he can really effectively use movement to his advantage. His “What’d I Miss” was hilarious, mostly because of his hysterical dancing, even if I didn’t really buy his Jefferson as the villain. Not that he's the villain, but he's put forward as such so we can love Alexander. Here, it was much clearer that Alexander was ruining stuff for himself.
As for Hercules Mulligan (the part I would be the best at except for I’m a white and a girl), this brings up the thing that makes me maddest about this production, the theatre, whatever cotton-headed ninny muggins are running this thing up in here. I am furious. Hercules and Madison are played by Tarinn Callender, who I’m looking at in the programme and this isn’t the guy we saw. At our performance, Hercules/Madison was played by Aaron Lee Lambert. Now, yeah, I didn’t know he was the understudy, he was great. Lambert really was a fantastic Mulligan and aside from resembling the actor playing George Washington a little too much, which caused confusion, I was fully on board with him. So I’m angry (furious, really) because nowhere in the entire theatre was any mention of Lambert made. On Broadway, you have to announce an understudy in two of three ways: by a slip in the playbill, by a posting at the box office/entrance of the theatre, and/or by making an announcement after the lights go down. There was nothing here – no slips in anyone’s programmes, no announcement made, no sign or posting of any sort anywhere in the theatre. Do you know how I found out? From Lambert’s personal twitter account. The show’s official twitter didn’t even say anything! This is not okay, guys. This is unacceptable for a professional theatre production. This guy did an amazing job, and yet he doesn’t get to have anyone in the audience recognize his efforts? Not even know or hear his name? Understudies deserve acclaim too! It’s so unfair to him to not have anyone even know that it was him up there. At least Kathy Seldon was going to get a line in the credits! I asked the show’s twitter about it but they didn’t respond because they are too busy being terrible.
At least that is the fault of minor players, people running the theatre or box office and doing a shit job of it. At least the production itself is wonderful and, apparently, their bench runs deep.
Now where was I. Oh okay, we met the boys, next we meet the girls – the Schuyler Sisters! I heard the (super annoying) girls behind me go ‘this one is my favorite!!!’ and although I wished ill upon them for talking, they were right. This number is super fun, even if the talent feels the slightest bit less exciting than you hope. My favorite part was seriously Christine Allado’s “and Peggy”, because even with that one-second line, she made it her own and she made it funny. Rachel John’s Angelica was pretty strong, but there was a spark missing. And Rachelle Ann Go’s Eliza was the weakest part of the production for me. She’s an incredible vocalist but her enunciation was the exact opposite of Giles’s, and her energy just seemed weirdly off. This song should be pure thrilling fun and it was just like normal levels of fun.
So yeah, I am really nitpicking here, because to most people everything here would look absolutely perfect. And it was one of the best productions I’ve seen in London. But when you can cast anyone in the entire world for these roles, I expect them to be the best in the world. Luckily, things were looking up in Duloc with the introduction of Michael Jibson and Obioma Ugoala. Jibson came on as King George III, and the audience was in stitches from the moment he took his first step. I usually consider George’s three songs very funny, but more like palate cleansers, to take a breath before the next incredible song comes up. But in this production, his songs were a highlight. Equally so for Ugoala’s George Washington (I guess the Georges were the standouts in this show!). Because of Daveed Diggs and how perfect his casting was, usually Lafayette/Jefferson outshines the rest of the supporting men. But here, I thought Washington prevailed as the most impressive supporting male character. Against all odds, I would award him the supporting actor Olivier for his work here. It’s not that he’s better than Chris Jackson, or that his voice is as great (it is great though), it’s that the whole dynamic of the group is changed here, so that Washington is the one who stood out. At least to me. His gravelly voice has this imposing, commanding essence to it that Washington needs to establish his dominance over the others, and it worked so well. Yay for greatness!
So you’re probably like hellooooo what’s this show called, you haven’t even talked about Alexander yet! I know. Jamael Westman was very strong as Ham, but I’m still conflicted. His first big moment centers around how he’s ‘young, scrappy, and hungry’, but Jamael’s Alexander didn’t seem that at all. He seemed very decisive, very mature, contained, sure of himself. It was a completely different take (which you really have to do when originating the role in a new production) and definitely valid, but I don’t know if it was my favorite move. The sparkle wasn’t there, the drive to do anything to be successful and to work as hard as possible, the tendency to make enemies sometimes. The scrappiness. Instead, it seemed like he didn’t even have to try, that his intelligence just came to him, that his endless words poured out of him without any effort. I’m sure that’s a compelling take for some, but I missed that roguish spirit, the one driven by impulse and guts. The one that made it more believable that he had a deep love for Angelica and the one that led to his affair. As for the former, Rachel’s performance of ‘Satisfied’ more than made up for any other issues I had with her performance. Sure I didn’t really see her love for Alexander in the rest of the show, but that number was sheer perfection. As for the latter, Christine did a great job with ‘Say No To This’, but it seemed like a lesser role than it has in the past. I think what wins that song is the money note, and it wasn’t as exhilarating as it should have been.
Another single song that lifted my overall impression of a performer was Rachelle’s ‘Burn’. She didn’t really do it for me, dawg, not for me, in this show but her performance of ‘Burn’ was killer. I wish that intensity and certainty of character was present in other scenes. Honestly, more than anything, this production made me appreciate Phillipa Soo. She did so much to create a full-bodied, completely realized depiction of Eliza, and it made it seem like Eliza was a bigger role than it actually is, which is why she was nominated in the lead actress category instead of featured, like many thought she should have been. It’s because of what she did with the role, elevating it from how it’s written. Rachelle is great, she really is, but Eliza seemed much more like a featured role. Considering how good her ‘Burn’ was, I think she will only improve – as everyone will – the longer they live with these characters. I am super excited to see them in a few months and see how far they go. I know I go on and on about how perfect the original cast was (they were though), but people forget that before Broadway they had at least a full year living with their characters and developing every inch of the portrayals at the Public and in rehearsals between productions. The London cast started previews at like the end of November. That’s less than two months. I really think it’s just because they are still new, and all the kinks will be worked out and all the weaknesses will be gone soon. (Why they didn’t have a longer rehearsal period though is beyond me (it’s not, it’s because they’d make the same extraordinary amounts of money regardless.))
But aside from the people who need more time, the person I’m most excited to see again is Giles as Burr. He really was the best part of this production. His wide-eyed calculating yet decorous nature is based in calm tension, and you are just waiting for that flame to erupt. It happens so slowly and so surely. I think his ‘Wait For It’ will improve with the slow-burning fire of emotion that it needs, but his showstopper ‘The Room Where it Happens’ was incredible. Oh man, I was so in.
I’m not really talking about the actual show because I doubt anyone reading this is unfamiliar with it. Also you can read my first review from a few years ago here, which talks more about the actual story and score. But there were three changes to the libretto, at least three that I noticed. First, in “Take a Break”, after Eliza says “Angelica tell this man, John Adams spends the summer with his family”, instead of saying “Angelica tell my wife, John Adams doesn’t have a real job anyway”, they changed it to “Angelica tell my wife, vice-president is not a real job anyway.” A minor detail that does make a lot of sense, considering Brits don’t know who John Adams was and so wouldn’t know that his job was vice president and that that’s the job that Alexander is mocking. But when most of the audience knows the words and most have since learned about the parts they didn’t understand, I think it is more jarring than helpful. Similarly with the other two changes: In ‘The Room Where it Happens’, when Madison says “Well I propose the Potomac”, they changed it to a more generic line that I don’t remember exactly but there’s no mention of Potomac. And, at the end, before the duel, Burr said “Then stand, Alexander. Jersey, dawn” instead of “Weehawken, dawn.” Now, with both of these location name changes, they make a ton of sense on paper because Brits don’t know Weehawken or the Potomac. But it’s weird because most people have learned what Weehawken and the Potomac are since listening to the album. After the show, all I heard leaving the building was people with British accents talking about the changes: “did you notice they didn’t see Weekhawken!” and things like that. Overall it’s not a big deal, and it doesn’t really affect anything, but when you have literally the most famous show and score ever, I don’t think catering to the local land’s knowledge is necessary. When I don’t understand things about British history in the many, many such shows to play in the USA, I either look them up afterwards or it just doesn’t matter for my enjoyment of the show, you know?
Obviously these are incredibly minor quibbles. These changes are slight; the cast will improve with time, and the ensemble’s dancing with get tighter. Oh yeah, at times the choreography felt a tiny bit sloppy, but again that’s because of the very short time they’ve been working on this so far. It will get better and tighter, I’m sure. Really, the only thing that I noticed in a slightly negative way that I don’t think can improve, is that the choreography gets too busy in the second act. This has some of my favorite choreography, it really does (especially ‘Yorktown’ and ‘The Room Where it Happens’, but I hate to say that later in the second act, I noticed how busy it remains at all times. It’s like Blanks was operating at 110% every moment and wanted to fill in every second, every nook and cranny with intricate movement. And it’s all gorgeous and intelligent, but sometimes it’s just too much. I never noticed that before.
But it doesn’t matter, nothing I said matters because this is still for sure the best musical, insanely genius with endless great songs where any one of the songs would be any other show’s best song and yet here they all are in one space. This show could be performed by children in a smelly basement and it would still be awesome to watch because the material is so unbelievably strong. I’m being overly critical with this production because that’s all you can criticize, the production, when the material itself is unassailable. And, with all the money in the world behind it, all the power of being the best show in the world attracting the best talent in the world, it should be perfection. It’s not right now, but it’s wonderful and I think very quickly it will progress more and more towards perfection.
The theatre refurbishment is lovely, if confusing. It’s like a maze and I couldn’t ever remember which bathroom I used but it didn’t matter because there are tons of them. There are two merchandise shops as well, and they have different stuff than in New York! Like a tree ornament! Whee so fun.
I’m not going to let up on their lack of understudy policy so hopefully they will make positive changes in that regard.
It was forking freezing, and they don’t have barricades. People just made a line on the main road, which is crowded because it’s right across from Victoria station! Pretty stupid! They need to get barricades for the fans to stand behind because it’s going to get crazier as the weather gets warmer, and really they need to move it away from the main road because regular people were pushing their way down and they could have endangered our precious actors. A few people came out, which was more than I expected considering it was a matinee and it was so cold, so yay.