Through Spotlight Education, Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Critical Review program gives high school students the opportunity to attend and review touring Broadway productions. A writing program, Critical Review enhances critical thinking and creative response skills. Students receive press kits for each show, and attend workshops led by experts in the field on topics ranging from lighting design to choreography.
Students post their reviews and interact through our online portal — online access is required for participation. Students are accepted through an application process.
This program is free of cost to participants thanks to the generous underwriting of Fred and Ann Moore.
Critical Review applications for 2018-2019 are now closed.
Please check back in September, 2019 to apply for 2019-2020.
Hamilton Review by Bex Williams
Hamilton is considered one of the most influential and game-changing musicals of the 21st century by titles such as The New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. The musical follows the life story of Alexander Hamilton and the many people he associated with, including his wife, the man who assassinated him, and even George Washington. Going into this show, I didn’t know what I was in for. I had listened to several of the more popular songs, but I didn’t know what this show would be like visually, and the only exposition I had was what I had learned in US history.
As I entered the theatre and took my seat, I got to take a good look at the set. It looks so simple from the get-go, decorated with shelving and wooden stairs and platforms. As the opening number began, I was amazed at how the floor began to revolve while the ensemble moved strategically, as if they’d been doing this their entire careers. I was absolutely astonished by their choreography and their chemistry with the set itself. Each set piece and prop had such an impact on the plot, which caused me to be excited whenever I saw a new prop or set piece be brought on.
I was extremely impressed with the diction and fast pace sustained throughout most of the show, especially by Julius Thomas, who played the title role of Alexander Hamilton. His rapping skills were incredible, and he delivered so much of the story through his face and voice alone. However, I was not as impressed with diction when it came to Thomas Jefferson, portrayed by Thomas Scatliffe. Though his facial expressions and body language were both great, I ended up relying on those two elements to tell the story of both Cabinet Battles. He lacked diction and articulation throughout the entirety of every song he was featured in, and while it was more understandable while he played the role of Lafayette, it was not beneficial to the storyline to have him slurring his words while meant to have an American accent.
I was astonished by how small the pit orchestra, led by Roberto Sinha, was. I expected a large number of people when I gazed into the pit, but I was pleasantly surprised to see about ten to fifteen musicians accompanying the show. I was sure the instrumental for a show this big would have been extremely complex and would require at least thirty musicians. I was half right, as I was astounded by how they took on such a complicated score and made it like clockwork. Along with this, immense credit is due to the technical team, led by Hudson Theatrical Associates, who happened to find a perfect balance between the orchestra and the actor’s voices. They added many effects into the show along with the audio, such as the lighting in each scene, which all seemed to have a coexisting story or meaning behind it, most of the time left for interpretation. For example, in the song Dear Theodosia, Aaron Burr was singing about how his daughter has his eyes. The stage has a strong light on him, while soft blue lights surrounded the centre of the stage in a circle, the different beams making it look as if the centre was a pupil, and the rest of the stage was the iris. This added an additional layer of creativity to the already imposing show.
I left this show not only emotionally intermittent, but blown away by all aspects. I hadn’t understood the hype surrounding this musical before attending, but exiting the theatre, I definitely did. The representation seen on stage was unlike any other shows I’d seen come through the Twin Cities, which added an element of joy while watching. I would definitely see this show again, and will be recommending it to everyone who has a chance to go.
The Issue on the Table: Hamilton Leaves Behind a Lasting Legacy by Sydney Pierre
Hamilton is a world renowned musical written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The show opened in 2015 at New York’s Richard Rodgers Theatre after premiering off-Broadway at the Public Theater. The groundbreaking musical is set in the late 1700’s and follows one of America’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, as he reflects on his journey in life and the legacy he strives to leave behind. The musical phenomenon won numerous awards, including eleven Tony Awards, as well as the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. Hamilton currently has shows on Broadway, Chicago, the West End in London, as well as two national U.S tours. The show mixes together the unexpected, combining history and modern music style, such as rap, pop, and hip-hop, together in cohesive manor. Declarations fly out of character’s mouths, some about love and ambition, others taken from direct historical documents, such as Washington’s Farewell Address. A diverse cast plays primarily white historical figures and the show tackles issues that society still struggles with today: racism, equal rights, and conflicted countries. The musical moves at a fast pace, the songs flowing one after another, building into what seems to be an endless climax of emotions, failures, and triumphs.
While the show is focused primarily on Hamilton himself, the ensemble and supporting cast members are heavily involved as well. The ensemble members use Andy Blankenbuehler’s Tony awarding winning choreography to their advantage, making their hip-hop based dances number seem effortless as they rotate around the stage on a turntable, another homage to modern music. The dancers’ effortless skills are showcased and creatively used in number such as “Yorktown” and “History Has Its Eyes On You”. Other supporting characters include Marquis De Lafayette (Kyle Scatliffe), James Madison (Desmond Sean Ellington), and John Laurence (King David Jones), some of Hamilton’s closest friends. The trio of Lafayette, Laurence, and Hamilton is seen frequently throughout the show, as the audience watches them grow from aspirational young men to military generals and key leaders in the fight for American independence.
Julius Thomas III, the Hamilton standby, absolutely flourishes in his role as he commands the stage with his powerful voice and spot on comedic timing. Thomas plays into Hamilton’s youth and innocence in the beginning of the show, which makes his transformation into a quick-witted, strong-willed man all the more powerful by the end of the show. His powerful voice and range of emotions are showcased in multiple numbers, including “My Shot”, “One Last Time”, and “Hurricane”. Nik Walker portrays Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s friend and eventual killer, with strength and brilliant flashes of a deep lurking jealousy, as he watches Hamilton continuously move up in the world. His smooth, yet strong voice is perfect for numbers such as “Dear Theodosia” and “The World Was Wide Enough”. Walker brought down the house with his Burr’s quintessential “I-want-song” appropriately titled, “The Room Where It Happens”.
Hamilton is filled to the brim with brilliant actors, dancers, and inspirational lyrics. The historical events that occur in the show may be long over, but the message and history remains, fully accessible to today’s modern society. Hamilton has already left a lasting legacy and will continue to provide inspiration and insight for many years to come.
Hamilton: It Blew Us All Away by Parker Adams
I am confident that by this time, there are few who are unaware of the cultural phenomenon that is Hamilton. The story of our “ten dollar founding father without a father”, Alexander Hamilton, told through Lin Manuel Miranda’s ingenious rap score and impressive choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler have managed to take theatre to new heights and open the theatre to a very different audience and perspective. The show, appealing to young and old alike, is not one you will want to miss.
The set for the show was simply spectacular. It was mesmerizing to watch the dancers on the massive central turntable. The upstairs “balcony” level was used with intent, and it created a whole level of dimension to the show. Seated in the balcony, I got a pretty good idea of the big picture of the show, but I was still able to catch the small details because all of my sight lines were clear. The set worked for every setting, fading wonderfully into the background and being useful for choreography and levels.
However, the actors truly shone on the set they were given. We did see an understudy (Julius Thomas III) as the title role of Alexander Hamilton, but it was completely and utterly believable that he could have been the full time lead. He brought a whole new depth to the character of Hamilton, a depth you could not get by simply listening to the cast recordings. He had a very unique style and spin on the character, but it worked wonderfully. The Schuyler sisters, Angelica (Ta’Rea Campbell), Eliza (Shoba Narayan), and Peggy (Nyla Sostre) were an absolute delight to watch perform. The song “Satisfied”, a personal favorite of the night sung mostly by Campbell as Angelica, was performed amazingly. The vocals were entirely on point, and the choreography was stunning on stage. I found myself almost in tears as her character broke down as she realized Hamilton would never be hers. Aaron Burr, played by Nik Walker, was also another high point of the show. He played the character of Burr flawlessly, and I found myself empathizing with one of the the “villains” of the show during his final number. King George, portrayed by Jon Patrick Walker, also deserves a shoutout. Despite only appearing in three or four songs, every single moment he was on stage I found myself in a fit of laughter. He portrayed this character so perfectly with his humorous air, and I can’t see any way it could have been done better. The actors flawlessly brought a new depth of the show to me and helped me to understand new meanings of the songs.
Another interesting point to this show would definitely be the costumes. Dressing the ensemble in white basics was a very ingenious move, and it truly made the principle characters stand out while creating a unity among the entire piece. The costumes were very attractive to the eye, and helped add another layer of character, especially in bringing in the historical aspect of the show with the modernized feel. I truly don’t think I could imagine Hamilton’s King George without his bright red cape and sparkly crown.
Seeing Hamilton was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I am so thankful I had the opportunity to have. This show brings you on a rollercoaster of emotions from sorrow to euphoria to gut busting laughter, and this show was one that brought the nation together. There has never been a show before that I could honestly say that I loved every single aspect of it; that is, until I saw Hamilton, of course.
Hamilton: an Educational, Revolutionary, and American Musical by Grace Whiting
In a show as talked about as Hamilton: An American Musical, high expectations are almost a requirement going in. I’m fortunate enough to have seen it once before in Chicago, so I thought I knew what to expect. Little did I know, each production is as unique as the show itself. This show is special because physical appearance doesn’t matter at all, so no characters look the same from production to production. In the words of creator Lin Manuel Miranda, this production absolutely looks like “America then told by America now.” Between that and the numerous different ways the roles can be interpreted, this production promises to be refreshingly different from the original cast recording.
Nik Walker’s Aaron Burr fully delivered a fresh take on the well-known role, displaying an authentically human version of Bur that differs from that Leslie Odom Jr., who originated the role. When I say “human,” I mean that I saw flashes of emotion that every person experiences in their life- jealousy, remorse, anger-driven motivation, and a beautiful tenderness in “Dear Theodosia.” At times, it almost felt that he was trying so hard to be different than Leslie Odom Jr. that I lost touch with the true character. However, he more than made up for it with his incredible takes on popular songs like “Wait For It” and “The Room Where It Happens” which left me with chills.
On the note of originality, standby Julius Thomas III did something that surprised me more than anything else in the show- he made me sympathize with Alexander Hamilton. Despite being the protagonist of the show, the title character is truly so self-centered and immoral that I have never been able to fully respect him. And yet, Thomas’s young, determined take on Alexander Hamilton kept me rooting for him until the very end. Thomas is a living example of why standbys should never be underestimated- he brought the exact life and energy that this character needs, and other actors could learn a thing or two from him.
Before seeing the show in Chicago two years ago, I knew the soundtrack inside and out. I owned the score, the book written by Miranda and Jeremy Carter, and really felt that I knew all there was to know. What I had overlooked was how much choreography can add to a production. I remember being blown away by Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography two years ago, and I’m even more stunned now. This choreography perfectly balances many different styles of dance with a literal physicalization of typical movements, such as rowing a boat or shooting a bullet. The choreography is one of many essential elements that make the show as powerful as it is, and it’s no surprise to me that it won the Tony Award for Best Choreography in 2016.
If I could list all of my thoughts on this production of Hamilton: An American Musical I would be writing for days, but I’ll close with this- this show is every bit as revolutionary (pun intended) as it’s been hyped up to be. From Jon Patrick Walker’s hilariously childish King George to Shoba Narayan’s ending that left me pondering my legacy, this production is one that promises to take its audience on an emotional rollercoaster. Its reputation makes it extremely difficult to get tickets, but for anyone who has the chance, I would highly recommend seeing Hamilton: An American Musical.
Hamilton is Here to Blow Us All Away by Madeleine Nelson
The revolutionary musical, Hamilton takes the commonly misunderstood story of Alexander Hamilton (Julius Thomas III) into another perspective. Hamilton fuzes hip-hop and modern culture into the history of this particular founding father. The story not only focuses on Alexander Hamilton but other important historical figures at the time and their untold stories. This modern history lesson also takes elements of racial representation to the stage as creator Lin-Manuel Miranda describes as “a representation of how America looks today”.
The performance of Julius Thomas III as “Alexander” was genuine and comforting. He had the drive that Hamilton was known to have and he was always very clear in all his choices as an actor. He took distinctive moments to focus on and really connect with the audience. This idea of connection was widespread throughout the cast. The performance of Shoba Narayan as “Eliza” was also one that felt very honest and real. Narayan sent chills down my whole body whenever she sang with that piercing yet serene voice or took an emotional beat. Another stunning voice was the other Schuyler sisters “Peggy/Maria” portrayed by Nyla Sostre and “Angelica” played by Ta’rea Campbell; all of them had tremendous voices. The entire ensemble had vocals that could only be understood when heard in person. Every single sustained chord left me with my mouth open and just the most indescribable feeling. Moments like that are not experienced often and can’t be felt just by listening to a cast album.
Another aspect of this show that left me speechless was the orchestra (conducted by Roberto Sinha). Since pretty much all of the show is sung, the orchestra was invested in every moment of the show, even the silence. The orchestration of this show repeats similar themes throughout the show but always finds a way to make the same melodies more exciting each time they come back. However, there were a few moments when they would overpower the chorus or vice versa. There are no breaks throughout the acts so I didn’t notice any transitional errors but simply a few sound issues (towards the start of the show). The set designed by David Korins remains as a base in each scene of the show with the addition of smaller set pieces as well as the double turntable. The turntable is a key to the beauty of Hamilton and is used to slow down the fast speaking or to literally move the story along.
What makes Hamilton so special is how it has changed many people’s view of Alexander Hamilton and the other essential figures in this era. Miranda took a huge historical scandal and decided to take that story and bring it to an audience. Combining aspects of musical theatre and hip-hop this show is truly something different. Crisp dancing, dramatic lighting, and unforgettable performances create a show that is not just a bunch of characters but a company telling their stories.
Miranda’s use of rap allows the show to have a rate of 144 words per minute which is much longer than any other musical. If put to the rate of other “fast-paced” shows, Hamilton would take between 4-6 hours to tell. I feel this rapid but thorough telling keeps audiences curious and ambitious while also connecting to Alexander Hamilton’s reputation for being a quick and smart mind. Every word he wrote meant something and every word used in this show has a purpose. Hamilton emphasizes representation in the future and how that impacts our history. The show has a little bit of something for everyone and is worth all the hype it has gained over the past few years. A brilliant piece of art that runs until October 7th is definitely not a shot to throw away.
Don’t Throw Away Your Shot to See Hamilton! by Alice Johnson
The hit musical Hamilton is now at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. Running until October 7th this musical follows the life story of Alexander Hamilton along with some other founding fathers. The show, written by Lin Manuel Miranda, has received 11 Tony Awards, along with 16 Tony nominations, a Pulitzer Prize, and a Grammy Award. With all this hype around the show, I was curious to see if it stood up to all the amazing claims I heard and after seeing the show for myself, my answer is a definite YES 100%.
I have to admit that I was quite familiar with the show before seeing it. I loved the music and had probably listened to the soundtrack thousands of times before. I was worried that this would make the musical less exciting because I knew what was coming next, however, about 2.5 seconds into the first number I was proven wrong. Seeing it in person made me feel like I was listening to the soundtrack for the very first time again. There is something so brilliant and almost overwhelming about the visual elements and how they add to the show that I wasn’t expecting. The set resembles a building that is old and has bricks falling off, however the color pallet that is used portrays warmth and comfort. The costumes, designed by Paul Tazewell, fit in perfectly with the set. Most of the chorus members wore off white clothing, and the pops of color that the main actors wore stood out on stage, specifically the red dress worn by the character Maria Reynolds. The choreography was complicated and consisted of sharp over exaggerated movements that enhanced the music.
Along with the set, costumes, and choreography, the lighting made a huge impact on visual interest. The light designer, Howell Binkley, did an excellent job adding small creative details that enhanced every other aspect of the show. This was especially evident in the song Satisfied. Spiraling spotlights created the effect of going back in time while a plethora of lamps and candles in the background added light to the stage and a sense of comfort. Perfectly timed flashes put emphasis on specific lines in the song and the lighting switched back and forth to indicate whether Angelica was talking to the audience or the other characters.
The only criticism I can even think of is that there were occasional squeaks made by the floor as dancers performed their choreography. This was a bit distracting, but only affected one or two numbers in the show. I also have no way of knowing if this is consistent from show to show, or if it only happened that night. It is completely possible that they recently cleaned the floor and the squeaks were unexpected.
Overall I believe that Hamilton stood up to all the hype. Every aspect of the show was excellent and the once criticism I could think of wasn’t that big of a deal at all. Tickets can be hard to come by, but if you happen to come across some, take them because this show is one definitely worth seeing.
Hamilton Review by Soren Eversoll
On Tuesday night, as the lights dimmed in the Orpheum and the familiar notes kicked off into the opener “Alexander Hamilton”, it was hard not to sense a palpable excitement in the room. Perhaps that’s what comes with a show that has so inserted itself into the cultural zeitgeist as Hamilton, a juggernaut of a production that has elevated itself beyond the familiar trappings of musical theater into a household name in pop culture. Everyone, it seems, has either seen the show or desperately wants to.
However, when by itself, Hamilton truly shows its chops. A barebones set and simple lighting seamlessly turns to swirling kaleidoscopes and battlefields as actors dance, sing, and rap across the stage. The cobwebs and grandeur associated with the founding fathers are instantly cleared away as a cast comprised nearly entirely of actors of color reminds audiences that the founding of the nation was a messy, chaotic, and extremely real experience. To watch the show is to feel your interpretation of U.S. history turned on its head.
The true hero of Hamilton is its book, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda of In the Heights fame. Apart from one minor scene in the first act, all of Hamilton is told through song, effectively making it the modern equivalent of the opera. This method is part of the reason the show feels so electric, so full in momentum. Another reason comes from the jubilant performances of Hamilton’s main cast. The titular character is played with wide eyed wonder by Julius Thomas III, who carries the show well through Hamilton’s many trials and tribulations. Marcus Choi pulls off a blunt, practiced leader in George Washington, who counsels Hamilton in more traditional songs like “History Has Its Eyes On You”. Standouts include a petulant King George (Jon Walker), energetic King Jones as the youthful John Laurens/Phillip Hamilton, and Shoba Narayan as Eliza, Hamilton’s wife and moral compass. However, the greatest standout comes in the character of Aaron Burr, played with silky cunning and barbed ambition by Nik Walker. Throughout the show, Walker masterfully edges into his descent from the heart-baring ballad “Wait For It” to the twisted “The Room Where it Happened.”
The only danger in a show so energetic as Hamilton is that it gives the actors a greater chance to rely on cartoon-like caricatures as opposed to real characters. While the humor in Hamilton was amusing overall, powerful emotional moments were sometimes ruined with a following joke or light hearted banter. Additionally, it was occasionally difficult to hear certain characters due to spotty miking – at points Walker was almost indecipherable during his quieter singing moments. Hamilton’s biggest danger, it seems, is also one of its greatest strengths – the pace and demand of the show are so much higher.
However, small issues did nothing to distract from the amazing storytelling and performing I experienced Tuesday night at the Orpheum. Every part of Hamilton seems to be perfectly engineered – ensemble members move seamlessly through complex dances into stage business – two bordering turntables give the set its momentum and some of the show’s most powerful moments.
As the ensemble warns Hamilton in the show’s opening number, “The world will never be the same.” How right indeed.
Hamilton Blows Us All Away by Nick Ericksen
Hamilton: a genre shattering, politics influencing, smash hit of a musical, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Rent took the stage for the first time in 1994. I found myself in an interesting position going in to the Orpheum on Tuesday night. I have already seen Hamilton in Chicago. The tsunami of excitement passed thoroughly over me when I saw it there, leading me to simply gape in awe at the show without analyzing it. So while Critical Review’s Calvin Mattson, who had never seen Hamilton, spent the whole evening whispering “ohmygodohmyodohmyogdohmygod,” I, a savvy veteran of this incredible show, was able to sit back and dial in on what makes this show what it is.
After seeing this show, I have an even stronger sense of how integral strong choreography is to a show. Andy Blankenbuehler has created choreography that will be studied and admired by dancer and actor alike for years and years to come. All the movements are sharp, clean, and very word driven. Every action gives deeper meaning to the lyrics. The ensemble in never just dancing to dance. Not only does the dancing show strong connection to the lyrics, but the dancers achieve incredible onstage connection with each other through the choreography. Whether it was something as simple as passing around a chair or something as complex as turntable work, the ensemble as a whole moved seamlessly, but with a sharp, distinct energy that was apparent to any carbon-based life form in the theater that night.
As we all know, the lyrics of Hamilton are complex, beautiful, and brilliant. This show’s lyrics and melodies are performed with the caliber that you would expect, and I have nothing bad to say about them. However, I would give a fair warning to anyone who has never seen Hamilton and has listened to the album religiously, as I have. The inflections, especially of Aaron Burr (Nik Walker). Many people I spoke to about the show were thrown off by Walker’s unique take on Burr and wanted to dismiss it is a bad performance. I would say, to a reader who to see Hamilton, you will not get Leslie Odom Jr. You will not get Lin Manuel-Miranda. You will not get Daveed Diggs. However, you will get amazing talent telling their own story though their own interpretation of a character. If you listen, you will hear the same passion and fire behind every word that you find on the album or on Broadway.
In summing up, I would like to add one final thought. Over the course of my first two years in Critical Review, I have come to expect more from an Orpheum show. My standards are much higher than they were two years ago. However, even with my heightened expectations, while watching Hamilton, I got the sense that I was indeed watching one of the greatest musicals ever written. History has its eyes on Hamilton, and its non-stop hurricane of brilliance will blow you all away, keeping you in the edge of your seat wondering what comes next. Don’t wait for it to come through Minneapolis again. Head down to the Orpheum, the room where it happens, as soon as possible. Once you see this show, you know you’ll be back as soon as you can.
- To develop and enhance critical thinking, self-expression and analytical writing skills
- To provide a unique and engaging forum for students learning outside of the classroom
- To provide high school students the opportunity to develop an appreciation for live theatre
Elements of the Program
- Participants see up to eight live theatre performances, often touring Broadway productions, at the Orpheum, State, Pantages or New Century Theatres and write reviews
- Opportunity to review press materials provided to the professional media
- Workshops with professionals in the theatre and journalism fields
- Tour of one of the Trust’s Historic theatres
- Student reviews posted on the Hennepin Theatre Trust website and SpotLight’s Critical Review reviewer site
What participants are saying:
“I LOVE Critical Review so much! Going to see all of those plays was so amazing. I really appreciate what the program has done for me.”
-Diamond Billinger, Critical Review student
“Fiddler on the Roof is one of the best performances I have seen this year, tied with Wicked and Spring Awakening. There is no one better than Chaim Topol to tell the classic story of family hardship and change.”
-Sara Sommers, Critical Review student
“I have loved Rent ever since I saw the movie. Being able to see the stage version with two of the original cast members was beyond amazing. It was so much fun and definitely an experience I’ll always remember.”
-Alicia Battle, Critical Review student