Atlanta Music Scene

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'Hamilton' makes its long-awaited Atlanta debut with messages of diversity and unity

BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene

For some, it’s the diversity of the cast — a real American story told by people who reflect all cultures in the country.

For others, it’s the intoxicating labyrinth of the lyrics, a soundtrack that delivers hip-hop beats and musical poetry to an audience that otherwise wouldn’t know DMX from a BMX.

And, for the historically minded, it’s a simple appreciation for a Founding Father not often spotlighted.

Be honest: Before “Hamilton” surged from scrappy, off-Broadway buzz show to Broadway (and worldwide) phenomenon, how much did you really know about Alexander Hamilton, other than his Secretary of the Treasury title and presence on the 10-spot in your wallet?

That’s part of the beauty of the  11-time Tony-winning musical , which will commandeer the Fox Theatre May 22 through June 10 for 24 performances. Composer, lyricist, book writer and all-around-genial-genius Lin-Manuel Miranda’s decision to lug Ron Chernow’s 800-plus page biography of Hamilton on a beach vacation in Mexico in 2007 blossomed into a history lesson easily digested by audiences from elementary schools to nursing homes.

Rare is the person who has exited a “Hamilton” performance having not gleaned a modicum of education.

“I always say, it’s one of those things that is perfect,” said Chris Lee, who plays the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson (this happens with several actors and characters, so don’t be confused – it’s just a “Hamilton” thing). “When the dude said let’s take cheese, meat and bread and call it a sandwich, somehow, it was perfect. This is kind of that thing in performing arts. All of the elements work together in an American story told by people who look like America. You hear ‘hip-hop musical’ and think it’s corny. But it’s so well executed. It’s told in a language that is so universal — which is hip-hop.”

As much as the soundtrack focuses on nimble rhymes, several of its songs — “The Story of Tonight,” “Wait for It” and “It’s Quiet Uptown,” among them — are rooted in more traditional pop/Broadway structures, requiring tremendous vocal flexibility from the cast.

Lee, also a burgeoning R&B singer (he’ll perform at Terminal West on June 11) with a musical crush on Stevie Wonder, is one of two cast members on the national tour with ties to Atlanta. He’s an Augusta native, but grew up in Austell and Kennesaw.

Chris Lee grew up in Atlanta. He portrays the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the national tour of "Hamilton." Photo: Joan Marcus

Lee’s interest in theater didn’t percolate until boarding school in Chattanooga, Tenn. During his junior year studying theater at Belmont University in Nashville, he sent in a blind audition tape for the Chicago “Hamilton” cast.

His double performances began in August 2016.

“As an actor, it’s Candyland,” he said about playing both parts. “That’s the other beautiful part of the show — we make it such a humanizing story. You make them not just historical figures, but people who joked around and were out in the street. We give them life, give them a sense of humor.”

Indeed, the cast of more than 30 operates differently than most other mega-musicals; many scenes include the majority of the performers lurking in the background — and usually for a deeper purpose.

Jennifer Geller, a graduate of Cobb County Center for Excellence in the Performing Arts (CCCEPA), the magnet school at Pebblebrook High School in Mableton, is an ensemble player who also portrays “The Bullet,” a pivotal part in the show.

Jennifer Geller, a graduate of Cobb County Center for Excellence in the Performing Arts at Pebblebrook High School, is part of the national touring ensemble for "Hamilton."

“It holds a lot of weight,” she said of the role. “Throughout the show, I’m lurking. I’m next to (Hamilton) a lot, I’m behind him a lot. It is subtle in that way, but there is so much going on on that stage.”

“This show is so crazy in that movement is so integrated into the story. (The scene/song) ‘The Room Where it Happens,’ where Aaron Burr is frustrated, our movement reflects that. Andy (Blankenbuehler), our choreographer, is so brilliant. He has a name for every movement. There’s a step called ‘crushing cans,’ and that’s Hamilton not being able to resist infidelity, and our bodies represent that.”

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Her sentiments are echoed by Hope Endrenyi, another CCCEPA alum who is a universal swing performer in the company, which means she can be called upon to jump into any “Hamilton” cast when needed to play any of the five female ensemble roles.

“As a performer, you love that the ensemble is so much acting. We’re not just singing and dancing in the background. The creative team did a great job including us as storytellers. We move the plot forward. We set the energy and tension in each scene,” she said.

Endrenyi had been part of the national tour for several months, but was recently summoned to return to Broadway, negating a hometown performance.

The multi-hyphenate performer, who credits her musical theater training at CCCEPA with preparing her for the “Hamilton” audition, had some incisive thoughts about the enduring — and growing — success of the musical.

“I think Lin really touched on something that speaks to people and it goes to show, our history is something we can relate to today and we can learn from today,” she said. “I think it’s just the perfect tale of what it means to be American and what you want your country to look like. Because of the ethnic diversity of the show, it encourages people to say, ‘Oh, that looks like me. I can participate in this.’ I suppose there’s always been a level of race tension in this country, but especially now, to have a show that specifically intended to be inclusive of race, that’s so important.

The national touring cast of "Hamilton." Photo: Joan Marcus

Geller, whose family lives in Marietta, refers to the cast as “ethnically ambiguous,” and recalls auditioning several times for “Hamilton” in New York until casting directors found the right fit.

“The show is so specific. Not only do the girls have to look different, but have different energies and vibes,” she said. “They wanted each group in society to be represented onstage. The majority of what I am is Spanish, so I guess someone could look up and say, ‘That looks like me. I’m Hispanic.’”

So when “Hamilton” finally arrives at the Fox this week,  more than two years after first being teased as the kingpin in the 2017-2018 Broadway in Atlanta season , fans will know to expect dexterous verbal jousting, a spotlight on a pastiche of cultures and a probing look at the man who is so much more than an image on that $10 bill.

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THEATER PREVIEW

“Hamilton.” May 22-June 10 (times vary). $211.50-$641.50. There is a four-ticket limit per order. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, www.foxtheatre.org. A  digital lottery will begin at 11 a.m. May 20  for tickets to the show’s first Atlanta performance on May 22. During the lotteries, 40 tickets will be sold for every show for $10 each. Visit http://hamiltonmusical.com/lottery/ for details.

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About the Author

Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Melissa Ruggieri covers music and entertainment news for Atlanta Music Scene blog on ajc.com.

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