The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Cyrano--a New Adaptation by Erica Schmidt at the New Group

I'm delighted to report that Cyrano, director Erica Schmidt's bold adaptation of Rostand's classic, is an innovative, compelling reworking of the original. As a lifelong fan of the original (José Ferrer was my first Cyrano, and until now my favorite), I've always loved the play, and when I hear it was to be adapted into a musical, I was. . . concerned. (Wrongly; the score by Aaron Deesner and Bryce Dessner is admirable; the lyrics by Matt Berlinger and Carin Besser are as well). Then I heard that Peter Dinklage was to take on the part, I was...intrigued. I thought Dinklage could be a great Cyrano--if the script let him.

It did, and he is.

From his first bellowing denunciation, to his sharp pull of the heartstrings at the very end, this is a Cyrano to remember. He's as witty as Ferrer, but exceeds his in the emotional nuances. Cyrano's fear, his self-loathing that motivates his heroic feats--all these feel organic and fully realized. Cyrano's bravura is a defense mechanism, as Dinklage plays the role--in part. Because Cyrano's repugnance at time-serving, compromise, and lack of gallantry--these are deeply held views that define the gallant man he has created himself to be, despite the world's disdain. And these views put him on a collision course with the Duke de Guiche (A first-rate Ritchie Coster, in a nuanced performance, at turns a comic monster, an ogre of exploitation, and a dangerous foe. But also a man in love, and one who comes to have a deep admiration for Cyrano).

Cyrano's love, Roxanne, played by a luminous Jasmine Cephas-Jones is stronger than in most versions of the story and neither Cyrano nor Christian (Blake Jenner, a strong, solid performance) can refuse her anything.

But the surprise of the show is that Ms. Schmidt has made some risky directorial choices, and they all come romping home successfully. First, she severs the link between Cyrano and the 17th Century in which Rostand set his play and the real man (no, really!) lived. Rather than unmooring the play, it sets it in a non-specific but nonetheless concrete world adjacent to ours, in which in the first act the soldiers evoke heroic musketeers (d'Artagnan, a character in Rostand's play, does not appear in Schmidt's adaptation), but in the second act evoke the American Civil War. Rather like Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning, this Cyrano is all of a piece, sealed off from our time.

The choreography by Jeff and Rick Kuperman--which is superb--compresses Cyrano's battle against 100 men into a shadow dance, music and rhythm depicting Cyrano's strikes again his many foes, and their gradual defeat. Similarly, the workers at the pastry shop heighten the emotional resonance of Cyrano's critical conversation with Roxanne, and then with Christian.

The last scene--Roxanne at the convent, de Guiche visiting her, and Cyrano's newspaper--begins softly, and ends with the tragic ending we knew was coming. As the leaves fall, Dinklage poignantly asks, "Can they rest, now?"

Cyrano finally can, as well.

The whole production has a feel of--appropriately enough--Cocteau's magical Beauty and the Beast (1946), and like it, is suffused with enchantment, in this case, through the brilliant staging and the music and choreography which take us away from the mundane world, even that of the 17th Century, and into the magical worlds created by artists like Cocteau, Fry--and Erica Schmidt, whose vision for Cyrano is fresh and challenging (this production censures Cyrano for his pride, instead of applauding it) and yet feels as old as tragedy itself.

A sublime evening at the theater, and one that lingers.

Monday, October 7, 2019

"Requiem for a Lightweight"/"Chief Surgeon Who?": MASH Revisited, S. 1 eps. 3 & 4

No, no; I don't intend to force episodes together into mini-reviews. It's just that these two go together so naturally that it's hard not to look at them together. That's partially because the first focuses more on Trapper John, while Hawkeye is the focus of "Chief Surgeon Who?" We start seeing some differences between the two Swampmen, and each has a moment in the Sun.

For Trapper, in "Requiem" it's winning the affections of Nurse Margie Cutler (Marcia Strassman) because "you fought for me." And indeed Trapper does--albeit a little reluctantly. Still, the good doctor (he fights under the name "Kid Doctor" against General Barker's large and loutish "Killer."

For Hawkeye, it's being appointed Chief Surgeon of the 4077th by Col. Blake, over the vehement (if shrill) protests of Major Burns, and the more formidable objections of Major Houlihan, relayed to General Barker (Sorrell Booke), another of the Major's amorous conquests. (General Hammond in the pilot and "To Market, to Market," was as well. He's also one of the very few actors from the film to recreate his part for television, as did a considerably more important character, Gary Burghoff's Radar O'Reilly. More on Radar a little down the road).

In "Requiem," we see both doctors are infatuated with Margie. When their infatuation offends Margaret, she transfers Cutler to another unit. In Trapper and Hawkeye's effort to persuade Henry to countermand Houlihan's transfer and get Cutler back, Hawkeye puts aside the venery for a moment, and appeals to Henry's best side; the man is a good doctor, and Hawkeye urges him that "Real talent in the operating room is hard to find." Henry glumly agrees, and offers to do it if either Hawkeye or Trapper will participate in the inter-unit boxing tournament. Hawkeye claims shoulder damage, and wheedles Trapper into agreeing to fight.

We get several training scenes that are pretty amusing, including one in which Father Mulcahy reveals that he is an experienced trainer for CYO boxers, and, asked to give Trapper some advice says "Prayer. I don't think he has one."

But let's take a look at a moment when Trapper is working the bag (Frank's bag, if he did but know it) in front of the Swamp. Trapper is, as mentioned, working the (Frank's) bag. Hawkeye is resting comfortably in a chair sipping a martini when Margaret walks by. Hawkeye gives her a cheery "Oh, Good morning, Major," and Margaret's response is--well, I find it interesting. Loretta Swit gives a brilliant, happy smile, and responds with an even more cheery cheery "Good morning, Captain." It's a well acted moment; Hawkeye in a good mood, carelessly being polite, Margaret's persona unfolds a little bit, she allows herself to be warm. Even when Hawkeye decides to get rid of her, he does so in the same friendly tone, saying "'Im afraid I can't ask you to stay. My boy's in training, and he's not even supposed to look at a women until after the fight." Margaret, still friendly, answers, "Oh, I understand." Swit plays the moment as Margaret enjoying being friendly with Hawkeye and Trapper; she seems genuinely happy. Then of course it shatters. "Just a minute," the Major almost growls, "isn't that Frank's bag?"

Trapper answers, pretty brutally, "I thought you were Frank's bag." It's rather nasty. Alda plays it quiet, almost as if Pierce doesn't quite know how to react to Trapper's dig. Margaret, angry, but hurt, storms away. It's a moment when, for just a minute, you can see Margaret and Frank's side of things.

When the boys discover that Trapper's opponent is, apparently, a killing machine, it's John Orchard's "Ugly John" Black, the anesthesiologist, who comes up with a plan (based on his own experience): douse the boxing gloves with ether, get in a "lucky shot" (and hold it to the face of the other fighter), and declare victory. And it's likely to work except that Frank--in a moment of surprising acuity--swaps out the ether for an ether bottle filled with distilled water. At the end of the first round, the somewhat battered Trapper is holding on, but the switch is found out--Hawkeye gets fresh ether, and the day (and Margie Cutler's affections) is saved.

"Chief Surgeon Who?" contains some resonance of "Requiem." As in the earlier episode, General Barker is drawn to the 4077th, this time based on a complaint from Major Houlihan, about the inappropriate behavior of the newly appointed Chief Surgeon, Hawkeye. Ironically, it's Frank's own complaint about Hawkeye's behavior in the OR that gets Hawkeye the unsought post. In particular, Hawkeye offends by countermanding Frank's recommendation dealing with pancreatic injury. Frank, relying on "the book," says "drain it." Pierce belays that order, imperiously saying "resect it." He criticizes Frank as "a year behind in your journals," and Hawkeye's advice is taken.

With Frank demanding charges against Pierce, including failure to salute a superior officer, Henry has him brought into the room. Watching Burns and Pierce spar, Henry makes a decision: "What I obviously have to do is appoint a chief surgeon...He'll be in charge of all surgical situations. In addition to his own work, he'll assist each shift to help with the tough cases. The job will be a killer." Burns assures Henry that he can adjust, only to find that Henry has given the job to Hawkeye. Burns protests, but, as usual when it comes to medical matters, Henry knows what he's doing. Pinning Frank with his eyes, he raps out "Face it! Pierce is the best cutter in the outfit. He's certified in chest and general surgery. In case you haven't read the papers, there's a war on. We're here to patch guys together. We can't be so G.I. we lose patients." Frank plaintively asks "Are you implying he's a better doctor?" Henry saves Frank's face a little, answering "Yes, when the heat's on."

Burns resorts to Margaret for comfort and passion, although his effort to be brave at the slight leads to him weeping against her torso. Meanwhile, at the Mess Hall, a coronation of the new Chief Surgeon is under weigh. (The scene, in a nice use of source material, is a toned down version of a similar scene in the novel and the film.) Radar leads Hawkeye in while bestrewing his path with confetti. Hawkeye, when urged to give a speech that starts off funny, then changes: "But let me say this, honestly, when you live in a cruddy situation like this long enough, you get to love a few people and even hate a few. I guess outside of our families we'll never be closer to anybody than we are to each other."

Trapper then asks, "You finished?" and Hawkeye responds "What did I get on the humble meter?," to the annoyance of those who thought Pierce was moved. The mood lightens when Radar runs in with Hawkeye's orb (a volleyball) and scepter (a plunger).

Burns and Houlihan have lured General Barker to the unit, where he is confronted by Corporal Klinger (first appearance!) in a WAC uniform. Barker is unimpressed. Concerned that Pierce is neglecting a patient, he's infuriated to find him playing poker. When he returns, Hawkeye is gone. But then, wandering the camp to find Blake, he runs into a series of romantic trysts including, to his intense annoyance, Margaret (whom he had hoped was waiting for him) and Frank. Several hours later, he finds Hawkeye scrubbing up, and goes in to watch. Pierce's delay has given the wounded soldier time to receive blood and fluids and to stabilize. In surgery, he finds additional injuries that Barker did not, and performs coolly and calmly. On their way out of the OR, Henry challenges Barker:
Blake: Well, sir, what do you think of my chief surgeon now?

Barker: I'm not very good at apologies, Pierce, but forgive a rusty old doctor, will you?

Pierce: I think you're very good at apologies, General.

Blake: Major Burns is probably going to continue to complain to you about the promotion.

Barker: May I make a suggestion about Major Burns?

Blake: Yes, sir.

Give him a high colonic and send him on a ten-mile hike.

Pierce: With full pack.

Barker: Good touch.
The next scene bookmarks Margaret's brief rapprochement with Hawkeye in "Requiem." In a busy OR, Trapper asks Hawkeye for an assist. But Burns has a tough issue, and asks "Can you give me a hand with this resection? " Hawkeye makes sure Trapper can keep his patient's situation stable, and goes to assist Burns. Calmly, respectfully, he looks to Frank, and says "I'm ready, Doctor." The two start working. Hawkeye says to Frank, "We'll split the fee, right? After a second, Burns answers, matching Hawkeye's tone, "right."

Beneath their masks, both doctors smile.

Transcripts of the episodes:

Requiem for a Lightweight

Chief Surgeon Who?

Saturday, October 5, 2019

“To Market, To Market”: MASH Revisited, S. 1, ep. 2

The surrealism of Henry Blake’s “handmade American antique” desk sailing through the air as the dazed C.O. watches from below (while still recovering from the disappearance of the entire back wall of his office) is all the more irresistibly funny for McLean Stevenson’s surface calm through the whole sequence. He underplays it beautifully, leaving the audience to fill in what Henry is thinking, with only his darting eyes to provide a clue. Stevenson’s contribution to MASH is sometimes under appreciated, because he’s so good at playing confusion overlaying panic, which is itself desperately suppressed, that you could miss it. Hawkeye and Trapper are more pyrotechically funny, but Stevenson makes you empathize with Blake, who just wants some normalcy.

Jack Soo (of Barney Miller fame) comes close to walking off with the episode as the perversely likable Charlie Lee, a black marketeer who is willing to sell anything to anyone, and from whom Hawkeye and Trapper John try to repurchase the 4077th’s stolen hydrocortisone. Trapper is more bewildered by the bizarreness of having to give money to the guy who has their drugs because his agents stole them than Hawkeye is, but he’s game enough to join Hawkeye in convincing Charlie that his desire for “only the best” mandates a finestkind desk. And the boys know just where to find him one...

An interesting character beat takes place when, prior to the realization that the 4077th’s drugs have been stolen, Hawkeye and Trapper accuse Margaret of making a mistake in the inventory. Her anger at having her professionalism questioned is volcanic, and when she can’t explain the discrepancy, Loretta Swit plays Margaret’s bluster as frustration that she genuinely can’t account for it. Even this early, the dichotomy between Margaret’s hardline persona and her professional perfectionism is being thinly sketched; Major Houlihan is a consummate nurse who doesn’t tolerate errors—especially her own.

Frank and Margaret are unexpectedly effective in their efforts to thwart Pierce and McIntyre (they unknowingly trap Hawkeye and Trapper in Henry’s office, thinking they’re barring the captains’ entrance, and go off for some, er, private time). Their escape requires toppling the back wall to Henry’s office, and Radar improvising a quick desk lift from a chopper pilot.

The whole thing has the feel of a Damon Runyon story, with con and mark changing places swiftly throughout. Hawkeye and Trapper prove to be as quick thinking and fast talking as Charlie is. Their goals are laudable—to save lives by replacing the stolen drugs—and if they don’t feel guilty toward Henry, well, they do care about the wounded.

MASH hits its stride in its second episode, humane, funny and surreal (I kept expecting the desk to hit a rock, a tree, or just to fall, but it sails, as Henry mutters, “up, up, up.”)

The series has achieved liftoff.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

MASH Revisited: S 1, Ep 1: Pilot

Our friends at Hulu having provided, I watched the first episode of a show that I was a fan of from childhood through high school, until it vanished, as 70s and 80s TV shows did, prior to the modern age of video, MASH.

Not having seen the pilot in--30 years? Probably.--it was not entirely what I remembered. The casual 70s sexism, the intrusive, studio-mandated laugh track, the crassness the scripts sometimes showed (some left over from the original film)--I'd forgotten those defects.

But even 47 years later, there's a lot to admire and enjoy. First, that the series had the sheer guts to be squarely anti-war in the middle of the Vietnam War. Second, Alan Alda's Hawkeye has a wounded, cynical tone in his voice over letter to his father, and the seeds are already sown of the man who will break in the last days of the war. Wayne Rogers and Alda have a casual comfort in their roles, and in riffing off each other.

No-one sulks like Larry Linville or glowers like Loretta Swit. The casting seems inevitable now, but that's an illusion--this is, after all, only two years after the original film, and it's inspired that Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds didn't try to echo the performances of Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Robert Duvall and Sally Kellerman. If Linville lacks Duvall's underlying menace, he's a lot funnier. (Swit was pretty menacing though; don't mess with her!) Alda doesn't have Sutherland's faintly amused air of detachment--he's fully present in every moment.

One thing I'd never liked was the too cheery, slightly brassy theme music; I'd always preferred the film version. But in the pilot, we get a little of the original theme's controlled wistfulness, with the orchestra rising as the choppers descend on the second verse. The way the chopper rocks a little as the titles begin is a nice touch, too.

The story was slight--Hawkeye and Trapper throw a raffle to send a young Korean man to college in the United States (Hawkeye's alma mater)--but the jokes (mostly) worked, and the performances were strong.

The patient has a heartbeat...

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Without Hope, Without Witness, Without Reward: A Sermon on Luke 14: 25-35

St. Bartholomew’s Church
September 8, 2019

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

I can’t believe I volunteered to preach on today’s Gospel. I mean, really, what was I thinking?

There’s no softening this one.

Today’s Gospel is Jesus at his most forbidding, his most challenging. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

Then the follow up: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

And just in case you didn’t see it coming, Jesus adds “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

So I did what I always do—I went to my sources. On Luke, that means I go to Joseph Fitzmyer’s massive and brilliant explication of Luke in the Anchor Bible series, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, and the commentary on Luke by my favorite Anglican theologian, Charles Gore—I say my favorite Anglican theologian, because I’m a fan of Nadia Bolz-Weber. Just to be sure, I consulted The Interpreter’s Bible—12 volumes I was given by the priest who supervised me at my field parish, where I trained for an academic year before I was ordained.

Basically, all the commentary can be summarized in four words: “Yeah. He meant it.”

Oh, Gore, with his typical subtlety, points out that “hate” here does not mean an emotion, but that just as love is an action, a promise, a commitment, so too here is hate—“the will directed toward action,” not feeling or emotion.[1]

And, Gore tells us, Jesus is laying down the “the sternest, most repellent claim—the claim for absolute renunciation of all natural ties and every kind of self-interest as the first condition for discipleship.” [2]

And yet, we don’t live that way.

We can’t live that way.

We do love our spouses, our families—biological or logical—our friends.

And we do not give away all our possessions.

Even in the Roman Catholic Church, only clergy, monks and nuns, are called to celibacy and lives of renunciation of the world. And yet even they engage lovingly with family.

The most fundamentalist churches, priding themselves on fidelity to scripture, do not follow this passage, because it is so hard to deny love, family, friendship.

We do not, in part because we recognize it as a form of self-harm. Without love, we grow distorted, angry, bitter. Like plants without sunshine, we wither without love, and only a very, very few of us can recognize a genuine call to celibacy and withdrawal from the world.

But even that is not what Jesus is speaking of here. Because picking up our cross means being in the world, but embracing shame, humiliation, and the rejection of the broader community, up to and including death.

This is Christianity at its most costly, its most harsh, its most difficult.

I’m not going to suggest that this is an easy Gospel. I’d be lying to you. But I think if we pull these verses out and make them into a self-standing, isolated code of life, we will either reject what Jesus is teaching us, or condemn ourselves to lives of self-inflicted isolation and deprivation. And when I think of Jesus in the Gospel According to John saying that he has come so that we might have life, and have it in abundance, we have to reflect more deeply on this Gospel to truly understand it.

The secular writer Steven Moffatt has written that “Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit – without hope, without witness, without reward. Virtue is only virtue in extremis,” he says, and tells a tale of two old friends, who have taken radically different paths. One is a hero, the other has become a criminal. When the hero asks his old friend for her help against seemingly insuperable odds, she refuses to throw away her life in a futile cause, and leaves him. But then, she changes her mind, and returns to help her former friend—only to be killed before she can reach him.

She dies, without hope, without witness, without reward.

She dies, knowing that her death did not help, that she will not be remembered or honored. She dies knowing that no one—not even her friend—will even know that she was coming to help him.

Virtue is only virtue in extremis—that is, virtue is only virtue when it costs. It is easy to lead an inoffensive life. But, if we look at Moffat’s tale as a parable, maybe we can catch a glimpse of what today’s Gospel is teaching us.

We are called to lives of heroic virtue, unheroic people though we may be, though I am. We are called to, as Gore wrote, direct our wills toward action—in plain language, to be ready to subordinate everything—comfort, family life, our position in the community—to witness the truth of Jesus Christ. To back up our professed belief that the ultimate truth, the absolute truth of the world is love. Not love as a pleasant feeling, or a diluted ethic of niceness, but love as a commitment, a promise.

That promise is a frightening one to make, because it requires us to actually be willing to pay the price of redeeming our word.

We can all point to stories of heroic virtue. Some are famous—Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela—so famous that the very establishments that sought to break their commitment now honors them, if only by lip service.

But there are stories of quiet heroism, of loving despite cost. The gentlest man I have ever known was my grandmother’s second husband when my sister and I were in our early teens. We called him Uncle Fred. He had served in World War II, and had helped liberate a concentration camp.

That youthful experience of wholesale, industrialized horror burned all the violence out of him. Later in his life, when we knew him, his much-loved daughter was murdered, her killer suspected, but never caught.

A little grimmer, a little greyer, Uncle Fred turned his love toward my grandmother, my sister, me, and our younger cousin.

It took heroism to commit to love again after his wartime experience, and to maintain that commitment, that promise, after my Aunt Carol’s murder.

He did it without witness—he was just acting like a normal person, not flaunting his sorrows. He did it, and here I must depart from Moffatt a little bit, with hope—hope not that the pain and loss would be magically healed, but that refused to give in to the face of the most obscene evil, both on the world stage and in his own family life. Uncle Fred continued to believe in the primacy of love, and to teach the children who loved him to love.

I know he did it not for reward, but I like to think his last family, the family he and my grandmother created in marrying—was rewarding to him.

That life of virtue in extremis, in the face of loss and the experience of cruelty, may shed a light on today’s Gospel. Jesus teaches us to put family ties, self-esteem, possessions behind the source of all of those good things—to not let ourselves be held hostage by them.

In AA we call this putting first things first—sobriety is more important than anything else. Because it is the condition of any kind of wholeness, of any spiritual growth.

Jesus is warning us that discipleship is hard.

That we may pay a price for it.

And if we intend to follow Him, we need to find courage inside our anxious hearts, and be ready to lose anything and everything along the way.

So when we lose them, when we are hurt to the very heart, we will not, as Job’s wife invites her husband to do, “curse God and die.” Rather, we continue on, always remembering that we are called to live abundantly, to our last breath, and to remember that the feeling of hate is always foolish, while the promise of love is always wise.

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

[1]Charles Gore, “The Gospel According to Luke,” in Gore, Goudge & Guillame, A New Commentary on Holy Scripture, Pt. 2: The New Testament, 228-229 (1929).

[2]. Id.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Have You Seen the Muffin Man?

[David Hemmings as Charlie Muffin, and Rohan McCullough as MI6 Secretary Janet exploit each other]

Brian Freemantle's Charlie M and its sequels are what I'd call school-of-le Carré espionage thrillers, but they have their own unique flavor because of the downmarket nature of the leading character, the illegitimate, Mancunian Charlie Muffin, whose inexpensive clothes lower-class origin, make him an outsider in the British Secret Service. Well, at last as it has become under new leadership--Charlie was in favor with the previous leadership, which found him in the 1950s, and set him against the Soviets.

But in 1979, Charlie finds himself disposable, deliberately sacrificed by the snobbish new administration in an operation at--perfect location--Checkpoint Charlie. Cheating death, Charlie finds himself unsure who to trust, and how to react...

The first novel has a great final twist that I won't ruin, but suffice it to state, Charlie spends the next several volumes vulnerable to treachery, relying on his professional training, his instincts for danger, and, most of all, his ruthless need to survive.

Charlie has few reliable friends or allies (to the point that the captured KGB spy Charlie had unmasked is probably his most sincere sympathizer), but manages to outplay the toffs who look down on him in their deadly game.

Until he loses.

That's when the series takes a level in quality. Charlie's ruthlessness can be breathtaking, and Freemantle keeps him just the right side of likable. His rapport with several of his foes--they bond over professionalism, and the lack of it among their colleagues--keeps Charlie and the reader wondering who, if anyone, can be relied on.

I'm trying to give you the flavor of the books without spoiling them, but they are quite fun, and startling on occasion. And Charlie--who in the film version of the first novel was played by a wonderfully world weary David Hemmings, with his aristocratic boss played by Ian Richardson--is a rumpled, clever, reverse snob with a chip on his shoulder. He uniquely is an outsider; even George Smiley, for all his dowdiness, has an Oxonian background, was recruited by the scholarly amateurs who in le Carre's novels created the "Circus"--the Secret Service--and joined the right clubs. Even his chronically unfaithful wife, Ann, raised Smiley's social status--as Edith, Charlie's wife, raises his a little. But Charlie's unfashionableness, disdain for his "betters", and fierce refusal to be condescended to (unlike Smiley)--makes him a thorny proposition indeed.

And a damned good read.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

"'Til the World Turns Upside Down": Hamilton in 2019

When I first heard the score to Hamilton, I bought it, and would listen to it on my drives to and from Albany. And then....the world was turned upside down politically in ways which have been inimical to my own ideals, and Hamilton's brand of idealism seemed inadequate to the times.

I was wrong.

I am fresh from seeing the show at Proctors in Schenectady, and, as A. Burr and A. Ham could both say, "it blew us all away."

Watching the superb cast--from leads to the ensemble--enact the story, the play's form of idealism seemed just what we need in 2019. There are no easy solutions for the problem posed in Hamilton. Alexander's own harrowing childhood renders him unable to say no to sexual temptation, such is his need to connect. Burr's own similar, though more cushioned past, leaves him a morally empty opportunist, yet one who thinks he can remain friends those he has betrayed. The Revolution's brutality is underscored by the fragility of Washington's army, and the desperation with which he wages war, on the verge of collapse.

Hamilton's own affair with Maria Reynolds, and his effort to salvage his reputation as a public servant by confessing that sin in public reduce him to a laughing stock, cost him Eliza's love (for a time), and, indirectly, lead to his eldest son's death. Other friends die (Laurens), fail him (Washington retires, showing us how to say good-bye, and peacefully transition power, but leaving Hamilton at the mercy of his enemies), or are abandoned by Alexander himself (Lafayette).

So, no. This is not an epic of easy optimism. It is, to use a term I learned from Herman Wouk, idealism dafka--despite expectations, ironically, or paradoxically. It's a portrayal, with wonderful music, lyrics, choreography, and story--of idealism in the face of the odds. In the face of loss, in the face of the possibility of loss so devastating as to be called simply "the unimaginable."

It's a reminder that America is an ideal that has never been fulfilled, but that is nonetheless vital. The mixed race cast, with people of color playing the Founding Fathers, the confluence of rap, jazz, with traditional American musical theater forms reinforce that this story is all of ours. And, as Hamilton and Lafayette remind us: "Immigrants. We get the job done."

Langston Hughes said it beautifully, but Lin-Manuel Miranda is a helluva lot more fun.


But how is it, o Anglocat, as a play?

The answer is simple: excellent. Now, the production I saw was a matinee, with two of the leads--Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Hamilton--portrayed by standbys. If not for the slip setting this out in the program, I would never have guessed.
Tré Frazier
brought a strong presence, a powerful voice, and a honed intelligence to the part of Alexander, and Stephanie Jae Park brought a range from fragility to steel to Eliza. Stephanie Umoh was a standout as the strong, witty, flirtatious, but fiercely loyal Angelica Schuyler, as was Peter Matthew Smith, by turns foppish, menacing, lubricious (his delivery of "my sweet, submissive subject" is only marginally less creepy than the 50 Shades series), and petulant as King George.

I can't improve on the Albany Times-Union's praise for "Josh Tower as a complex, sympathetic Aaron Burr; Paul Oakley Stovall playing an imposing George Washington; Bryson Bruce, foppishly flamboyant in different ways as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson; and Jon Viktor Corpuz as the antislavery activist John Laurens and Hamilton's eldest son, Philip, whose death by duel predated his father's similar fate by three years."

The Ensemble is almost always in motion, the dancers playing parts (Redcoats and rebels, audiences to street oratory and presidential cabinet meetings (Epic rap battles!); they give the scenes a depth and complexity that textures the experience--we are watching symbolic living history, not a diorama.

How is Hamilton in 2019?