Review: ‘Hamilton’ exceeds high expectations

static.playbillNEW YORK — When a show wins a Tony, a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize, one can assume it must be pretty darn good. Normally, such praise lends itself to disappointment, but, amazingly, “Hamilton” is actually better than the hype!

From the opening song where we meet our titular hero, to the final heartbreaking moments, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s creation is a feat for the ears, the eyes and the emotions.

The performance on July 20 at the Richard Rogers Theatre was two weeks late to see the creator in the starring role, and Leslie Odom Jr. had also departed from his Tony-winning role as Aaron Burr. But the play’s the thing, as the saying goes, and this play is so well crafted that the production did not miss a beat. The power of “Hamilton” is far bigger than any particular actor. Javier Muñoz had already played the title role once a week since it opened, and stepped into Manuel’s shoes, as he had in the author’s previous hit, “In The Heights.”

Muñoz is a slightly better singer than Manuel, and his performance was vibrant and energetic. Surely no one in the audience felt short-changed.

Austin Smith as Aaron Burr, the antagonist that both narrates and drives the story, was excellent, as well as holdovers Renée Elise Goldsberry, in her Tony-winning role as Angelica Schuyler, and Christopher Jackson, as George Washington. Alysha Deslorieux, as Hamilton’s wife Eliza, was also superb.

But really, it is unfair to single anyone out. The strength of “Hamilton” is the ensemble working as a team to tell an immersive story about a man, who until recently was one of the least known Founding Fathers. The stage is constantly full of movement and even the most prominent players sing with the chorus when needed.

Just about the only time I remember the stage being bare is when King George III, hilariously played by Rory O’Malley, whiningly sings “You’ll Be Back.”

The music is superb. At times it is fast-paced rap, at others classically musical theater. And the lyrics are magnificent. “Hamilton” is a three-hour history lesson, and the rap format allows for more words than any other show, I would bet. The history is so entertaining that one of the happy by-products of the show’s success is the number of young people who are getting a crash course on the birth of the country, and also being drawn to the theater.

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Cast members fro “Hamilton” conduct a talk back following the July 20, 2016, performance.

So why write a musical set in the late 1700s about a man most people only know from being the face on the $10 bill? Manuel’s brilliance lies in writing a show — designed to have a color-blind cast — that uses its anachronistic soundtrack to show that many of the issues the fledgling U.S.A. faced are the same issues we are still grappling with. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s states-right support vs. Hamilton’s belief in a strong central government; the contribution of immigrants; the philosophy of governance; and even the first political sex scandal.

“Hamilton” is witty, clever, touching and inspiring. It is also brilliantly staged. During the curtain call, I felt tears welling up, not just because of the incredibly moving last scene, but also because I realized I had just seen a piece of pure Art, with a capital “A.” It is rare that one can honestly say, “Don’t believe the hype — it’s much better than that.”

Note: Reading Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of Hamilton, which inspired Manuel to write the musical, is not necessary to enjoy the show, but it adds texture. Listening to the soundtrack is also a help. Trust me, you are going to want to listen to it once you see the show anyway, so just get a head start. It’s available free with Amazon Prime including lyrics.

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Renée Elise Goldsberry leads the Schuyler Sisters in this production shot from “Hamilton.”

Review: ‘Naked Man Rising’

nakedLOS ANGELES — There is something immensely satisfying about a good revenge fantasy well done. And “Naked Man Rising” is well done indeed.

The writing is crisp and the play moves along at a deft pace. But the words are simply a vehicle for Kyle Durack’s powerful interpretation. The Canadian actor was born with spastic diplegia cerebral palsy, and in this piece he sheds his disability along with his clothes to reveal the inner strength concealed by a “weakened” body.

Durack plays “Long Game,” a character with cerebral palsy who, on his first day at high school, meets a gang of typical school bullies —Clint, Arnold and their leader, Tommy Gun. After some initial ribbing, “Long Game,” as they nickname him, rather than being bullied, is inducted into the group.

As time passes, “Long Game” tells stories of pranks, including spying on the girl’s showers, where “Long Game” falls for Allison Reynolds, cheerleader and unattainable goddess.

At the end of the year, the boys go camping and the real long game is revealed as Durack’s character is left naked and alone on a mountain. At this point, Durack is literally and figuratively naked. For the rest of the play, he remains physically bare as he builds an emotional wall fueled by revenge.

At the end…? Well it is a revenge fantasy, but there will be no spoilers here.

Durack uses his physicality well as he tells the story. He begins with a pronounced limp, the weight on his left leg almost exclusively balanced on his toes, the scar from his surgery clearly snaking down his back as he turns. When “Long Game” decides to rebuild himself to carry out his plan, Durack shifts his posture to portray new strength of both body and purpose.

“Naked Man Rising” mixes humor and action into the monologue, and writers Chambers Stevens and Travis Perkins (who also directed) are to be complimented. But this is Durack’s show. He breathes life into “Long Game” and the audience gets to enjoy and share in his transformation.

Ultimately, the naked man rises, both in the text and on the stage, and rises high.

The show was presented July 13-16 as part of the Son of Semele Solo Creation Festival. The festival continues through July 31.

For information, visit www.sonofsemele.org.

Glamor, Glitz and Gore

photosHOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Among the flashier and more obviously touristy sites on Hollywood Boulevard sits the biggest treat for fans of Tinseltown’s Golden Age.

The Hollywood Museum is housed in the old Max Factor makeup factory, on the corner of Highland Avenue in the heart of Hollywood. Factor was the makeup artist to the stars and dubbed “the father of modern makeup.” He purchased the building in 1928, shortly before the Great Depression started, and the Art Deco-style building finally opened in 1935.

Over the years, the cosmetics company Factor built went through various owners before the building was sold to the museum in 1994. It took nine years to restore the building’s lobby to its current splendor, and while the ground floor focuses on old Hollywood glamor and the work of Factor, movie paraphernalia fills the basement and upstairs former factory space.

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Hannibal Lecter’s cell from “Silence of the Lambs.”

As well as being a fabulous building, the museum has something for every taste. Interested in horror? How about Hannibal Lecter’s cell from “Silence of the Lambs.” Old Hollywood? Here’s Cary Grant’s car, which sits under the model plane used in “Jurassic Park 3.” Movie props? The Beverly Hillbilly’s car sits upstairs, along with costumes from movies as diverse as “Planet of the Apes,” The Flintstones” and “Star Trek,” and TV shows from “I Dream of Genie” to “Mad Men.”

The basement is every horror lover’s dream, with costumes and tributes to legendary actors such as Karloff, Lugosi and Cheney, as well as monsters from Frankenstein, The Mummy, Dracula and the Werewolf, to modern terrors such as Jason, Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger, and cult favorites such as Vampira (Elvira is upstairs, along with her car).

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Marilyn Monroe memorabilia. Photo by Ramona Young.

The museum also claims to host the largest collection of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia, including her “Million Dollar Dress,” the coroner’s report, her makeup and various and sundry items and photos.

The highlight of the museum is the ground floor, which casts its eye squarely on old Hollywood. The walls are covered from floor to ceiling with photographs of stars from the Golden Age., along with props and outfits.

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The Max Factor beauty calibration machine. Photo by Ramona Young

The exhibit also honors Factor’s career and innovation. He worked with every major studio star, and some of the devices he used to calibrate the perfect makeup look almost like medieval torture devices. Bette Davis’ and Joan Crawford’s makeup kits are on display, as if they had just stepped out.

Roddy McDowell’s powder room is displayed, complete with its pink toilet. And when I say his room, it is the actual room, walls and everything. The room is filled with photos of his famous friends, all signed to the actor.

The lobby is a thing of beauty in its pink Art Deco splendor. An original pair of ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz” — one of seven in the world — are proudly displayed, but Max Factor’s personal makeup kit takes pride of place.

Film fans just interested in kitch and costumes will have a fun time negotiating the labyrinthine displays. And true movie buffs will delight in the history and glamor found within the museum’s wall. Don’t miss it.

For information, visit thehollywoodmuseum.com.

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Thanks to Ramona Young for many of the photos.

 

Cooking Up A Good ‘Bad’ Tour

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The replica RV cooks some “Blue Sky”meth during the “Breaking Bad” tour.

Spoiler alert: The following may contain details from a show that ended three years ago. Seriously, if you haven’t watched it by now, you’ve only got yourself to blame.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When we decided to visit the Grand Canyon on the way to Los Angeles, we discovered the shortest route from Beaumont was through Albuquerque, the setting for “Breaking Bad.” And a little digging revealed a “Breaking Bad RV Tour.” So guess where we made our first stop on our trip out West.

Walking to the rendezvous point in Old Town, we were passed by our ride — a replica of the “Krystal Ship,” a 1986 Fleetwood Bounder RV, complete with bullet holes in the door. Just seeing it pass by was enough to get us laughing with excitement.

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Andy Coughlan and Ramona Young assume the pose.

The tour lasts three hours and includes complimentary breakfast burritos and a drink at Los Pollos Hermanos — O.K., it’s really a Twisters, but crucial scenes were shot there as it doubled for Gus Fring’s fried chicken franchise. There is even a 1998 Volvo V70 parked in Gus’s spot.

The tour guide, Frank Sandoval, kept the show moving with anecdotes from the set (he was in several episodes) as well as impressions and trivia. Bags of candy “Blue Sky” meth were among the prizes.

(Trivia break: Jesse only calls his partner Walt three times in the whole series. The rest of the time he calls him Mr. White.)

The tour visited locations used in “Breaking Bad” and its spinoff “Better Call Saul.” We saw where Combo was shot by the kid on the bike, and the Crossroads Motel where Wendy, the meth-head hooker plied her trade. We visited the industrial laundry which covered the meth lab, and the car wash where the staff say, “Have an A1 day,” to the tourists.

The TV in the RV played clips from the show prior to visiting each location.

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“Blue Sky” candy meth.

The tour is not cheap, at $75 and limited to 20 participants, but it is a must for any fan. Tour guide Frank also sprinkles in various other tidbits on movies and shows filmed in the city. New Mexico offers a 25 percent rebate on money spent on film and television production in the state providing the production uses a percentage of local people. It’s clear from the amount of Heisenberg T-shirts, LAWYRUP license plates and other “Breaking Bad” paraphernalia for sale that the city has used the show to bring in additional revenue.

Most of all, the whole experience is fun. Just remember, when the RV stops at Walt and Skyler’s house, don’t be a “bitch” and throw pizza on the roof. It’s happened plenty of times and the owner of the house is just a little tired of it, yo!

For information, visit www.breakingbadrvtours.com. A portion of the money from the tour goes to Healthcare for the Homeless, a substance abuse program.

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