‘Hamilton’: Historic hip hop Broadway mainstay gets powerful, poignant production

It’s been over a decade since Lin-Manuel Miranda stood before the president to perform a hip hop song about the life of Alexander Hamilton. Little did he know that one day that simple song would lead to one of the most celebrated pieces of media of the 21st Century, the record-breaking Tony, Grammy, and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Hamilton, which netted upwards of thousands of dollars a seat in its prime. After nearly a decade, this musical wonder has finally made its way to Austin audiences thanks to Broadway in Austin, who bring in a talented cast of Broadway vets along with other talented touring players, to create a polished, powerful production that will take audiences on an emotional, engaging journey through the life of one of the most underappreciated founding fathers, full of witty, raw, and well-written tunes, clever, subtle choreography, and smart direction that’s sure to satisfy even the most ardent Hamilton fan.

Even with the best tunes and finest supporting cast, the piece would fall apart without a steady force at its center, and thankfully Joseph Morales imbues the titular protagonist with a sensitivity that makes him likable, even in his darkest moments, all leveled out with a cocky confidence that makes him a believable Lothario. His soulful voice also gives his songs a different flavor than fans may be familiar with, a style that keeps the flair of Miranda’s delivery, while injecting a touch of extra heart into some of the more emotional moments. Morales makes smart choices throughout, creating a performance something distinctive, effervescent, and riveting.

Of course, Hamilton’s gonna need his right hand men (and women), and the major actors with whom he surrounds himself all bring something brilliant and unique to the table. Though he lacks the powerful, belting prowess of Leslie Odom Jr (what actor doesn’t), what Nik Walker brings to the roll of Aaron Burr is an emotional verisimilitude, a staunch confidence of character that helps the audience connect with his spirit. In many ways the musical Hamilton paints Burr as a very sympathetic character, and through his vulnerable performance, Walker helps the audience see into Burr’s heart and soul. Speaking of vulnerability, Erin Clemons brings tears of many shapes and sizes throughout, thanks to her sensitive performance as Hamilton’s wife Eliza. Her arc is one of the most heartbreaking in the show, and Clemons carries it with aplomb, selling each feeling as if it she’s ripping it from her own chest. When she belts out “Burn” in one of the show’s most gut-wrenching moments, prepare for the aisles to become flooded with the audience’s tears.

The production is also littered with several winning supporting performances. In particular, Fergie L. Phillipe, in the dual role of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison, steals most of the scenes he’s in, even if he’s only in them for a moment. He’s fantastic at bringing out the humor in every situation, even if it’s just a single word. Another show-stopper is Jon Patrick Walker as King George, who’s over-the-top personality is perfect for the haughty king, and every time he appears on stage one can’t help but smile. We also mustn’t forget Kyle Scatliffe, playing the dual role of the talented revolutionary Marquis de Lafayette, as well as the cocky Congressman Thomas Jefferson, and he flounces into both with a cock-of-the walk confidence that makes him instantly likable. He also has the talent to balance this cockiness with the believability, never straying into over-the-top caricature.

Hamilton has become a legend in its time, a modern masterpiece, beloved by people around the world, so this touring production has a lot to live up, but luckily Broadway in Austin has brought us a polished production of this Broadway wonder. Full of toe-tapping tunes, pitch-perfect performances, and some real heart, this production will surprise any audience, whether they’re super-fans who’ve memorized every word of the cast album, or newcomers who barely know the play’s historical backbone.

Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus.

Broadway in Austin’s ‘Cats’ is a whimsical piece of pure nostalgic spectacle

As a critic, I try to walk into most productions as blind as possible. I may read a play to get some context, or look up some information on a historical figure if they’re the subject of a work, but on the whole, I try to remain as impartial as possible, keeping expectations minimal and on a level ground. That said, there are some productions that carry with them added weight. Cats is one of my family’s favorite musicals. My sisters and I wore out an old VHS tape of the Broadway production, playing it over and over, and later, my nieces and nephews did the same, and it was always one of my mother’s dreams to see a live production of it. This is the weight I couldn’t help but carry into Broadway in Austin’s production of the musical, a musical that had followed me around since my childhood. Could anything ever live up to those kind of expectations? In a word, yes, but let’s examine further.

When you spend so much time with a musical, it almost becomes a part of you. Even hearing someone mention Skimbleshanks is enough to make me grin, for instance, as it brings back memories of an elementary school theatre arts production, or those tapes, where he was far and away my favorite Gelical Cat (pretty good for a character who only spends about twenty minutes on stage). Mistoffelees, Macavity, Deuteronomy, these characters all hold a special place in my heart, so seeing them live on stage, you would think it comes with an automatic joy. However, there’s the rub. Broadway in Austin’s production could have gone very badly. With such extreme nostalgia comes expectation, and though there’s a joy that comes with meeting those expectations, there’s also the very likely disappointment that will come with not meeting them. After all, if someone has memories of one of the best productions of a particular musical, it can be a difficult task to overcome that to create something worthwhile.

It’s to director Trevor Nunn’s credit, and the credit of all his team, that this production not only met my expectations, but exceeded them. What Nunn and company have created here is very smart, as it clings to the parts of the musical that Cats lovers enjoy, while adding just enough to keep things fresh and interesting. We can still sing and clap along as Mistoffelees does his incredibly footwork, still beam with joy when Skimbleshanks finally shows appears, vest and all, and weep when Grizabella is finally accepted by her peers. What Nunn added is the polished production, from the fine costume work, to the gorgeous set design, to the absolutely stunning lighting design, the latter of which elevates every scene, as they know when to keep the work subtle, and when to explode in a flurry of insane tricks, keeping the momentum lively and the action moving, and making some of the show’s best moments shine even brighter.

Certain pieces of art need no introduction. You don’t need someone to tell you that the Mona Lisa is working checking out, or that The Barber of Seville is a hot show. In much the same way, most of the people reading this will already know whether or not they’re going to enjoy Cats. That said, what Broadway in Austin has brought us is a visually sumptuous, wackily whimsical presentation of the White Way mainstay, full of stunning choreography, impressive production, and polished performers. Nunn has provided the epitome of Cats production with this tour, creating an unforgettable experience for lovers of the musical, which may even turn some reluctant naysayers.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy.

‘Waitress’ is a hearty slice of Southern charm, with a big dollop of heart

Though it doesn’t get much attention today, when it was released 2007, the film Waitress was a bit of a revelation, one of the most celebrated romantic comedies of its time, proving Keri Russell had a life beyond Felicity. Though its fame faded in the years that followed, the story gained a new life thanks to the team of award-winning pop princess Sara Bareilles and writer Jesse Nelson, who turned the indie favorite into a Broadway phenomenon.  After winning several Tonys, the Broadway is finally making its way to Austin stages thanks to Broadway Across America, who bring all the frothy joy, toe-tapping tunes, and tear-jerking drama, along with a talented cast of professionals that carry the music, and the emotion, all the way to the rafters.

Waitress takes us to a quiet diner in an unnamed Southern town, and follows the travails of the titular waitress Jenna, whose kindness is matched only by her troubles. Married to an abusive husband, pregnant with a baby she didn’t expect, and barely making ends meet, her only source of solace is also her greatest talent: pie-making. When a handsome doctor and a pie competition enter the picture, a way out begins to take form, but can she shake the responsibilities of her life in order to make a new start? The resulting journey is charming, dramatic, and surprisingly ribald, with an extended cast that adds fascinating and fun texture to the proceedings, and some great tunes that help to put words to the surprisingly complex emotions of the characters. It tackles some serious issues, but always keeps things light, showing that hope and friendship can help you through even the darkest of nights.

Finding the right Jenna is a tricky balance. You need someone who brings not just charm but a certain strength of personality, a stony resolve that endears her to the audience, even as her faults come to the fore, someone with solid comedic chops, but who’s also able to carry the dramatic weight this narrative brings .  Christine Dwyer brings no shortage of adorable quirk to her role, but there’s always something more going on behind her eyes, a strength that keeps her going through all her hardships. She’s the anchor that keeps the goofy cast grounded, while still bringing plenty of humor in her own right. The chemistry with strikes up not just with the hunky, but sensitive doctor (played with a delightful charisma by Steven Good), but also with her two fellow waitresses, creating a living, breathing cast that’s never less than lovable.

It’s always a delight when an actor can build a small role into something show-stopping, and Jeremy Morse is doing just that from the moment he appears as the foppish, but persistent, Ogie. He tackles the role with an ecstatic energy, that radiates out palpably to the entire audience, especially in his opening song, “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me”, one of the show’s best numbers, a spirited, toe-tapping tune, which instantly endears him to viewers. His vigorous spirit plays perfectly with the awkward, quirky energy that Jessie Shelton bring to her role as the shy waitress Dawn, the two of them creating some of the best chemistry in the show. These two play so well together that, when they’re off stage, the audience can’t help but sit in anticipation for their next appearance.

Waitress isn’t as emotionally devastating or socially relevant as many of its contemporaries, but sometimes a charming, fun slice of hilarity and heart makes for a well balanced meal, and there are few musicals that offer this up more heartily. It’s one of most fun evenings you’ll have at the theatre, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, so grab your tickets and make sure not to miss this sweet little piece of romantic comedy gold.

Waitress is playing through Sunday the 27th, so be sure to grab your tickets fast at Austin.broadway.com.

Photo courtesy of Broadway Across America.