Broadway’s ‘Hadestown’ Raises Hell And Musical Stakes For The Tony Season: Review

Patrick Page, Amber Gray, 'Hadestown' Matthew Murphy

Broadway is doing some remarkable myth-making this season, or maybe myth-revising. Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma! is upending that great American folktale of the frontier. Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird is taking on the myth of its very own origins. And now Hadestown, the most thrilling new original musical of the season, is taking on the great grandfolk of all mythology, sending Orpheus and Eurydice straight to Hades via the irresistible rhythms of New Orleans jazz, sultry French Quarter gyrations and a cast no pantheon could have improved.

Written by the immensely talented singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell – the musical began life as folk opera concept album, then was developed at New York Theatre Workshop – Hadestown is brought to remarkable life by director Rachel Chavkin, who does for the Quarter and hell what she did for Tolstoy’s Russia with 2016’s equally fine Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.

Eva Noblezada, Andre De Shields, Reeve Carney Matthew Murphy

“It’s a sad song, but we sing it anyway,” as our host for the evening, the natty Hermes (André De Shields, a treasure), will put it during this sung-through musical. Hermes, dressed in a sharkskin suit, leads us along with all the charisma and purpose of a Mardi Gras guide, with both joy and a hint of, if not malice, then pragmatism. He introduces us to everyone we’ll need to know: Persephone (Amber Gray), the goddess whose bi-annual arrival topside brings spring to a cold, cruel world, and who carries herself like a been-around juke joint chanteuse.

There’s the starving young street girl Eurydice (Eva Noblezada), a tough-thinking survivor who loves, and is loved by, Orpheus (Reeve Carney), a sweet-voiced busboy forever struggling to write the ancient-seeming love song that lives somewhere deep in his soul.

And then there’s Hades (Patrick Page), his pin-striped suit covered in a floor-length leather duster, his eyes usually shaded and his sepulchral voice descending somewhere lower than the underworld where Leonard Cohen rules. It’s Hades who, for no other reason than that he can, seduces a very hungry and rather clueless Eurydice to join him in the underworld.

There’s also a trio of fates (Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, Kay Trinidad), in a sort of Platonic ideal of back-up singers) and a chorus of beautiful men and women who strut the Quarter and grind like WPA posters come to miserable life in the coalfire hellscape of Hades.

See, hell is no fun at all, presented here as a constant, circular factory line-slash-death march of dead-eyed, coal-smudged workers. Here Eurydice will spend eternity unless and until Orpheus can do the impossible: descend into the underworld and rescue his beloved.

With music so immediately appealing that a deal with the devil might lurk somewhere in its past, the sung-through Hadestown is presented in well-dressed, more-or-less concert form, with each character trading centerstage to sing his or her moment in myth, an expository approach that bothered me not a whit, so good are the songs and the singers here. And for all its 21st Century concerns – keep reading – there’s a touch of the old-fashioned here if by old we mean rock-era stalwarts such as Pippin, Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. Hadestown takes the best of the genre and fires it into something utterly fresh.

As for those modern-day concerns, has the ancient tale of Persephone ever been of better use? C’mon, you remember, don’t you? Neither did I. Goddess of the seasons, Persephone spends have the year with husband Hades in the underworld – our fall and winter – and the other half “up on top,” as one of the songs puts it, bringing the life of spring and summer back to our world.

But winters are colder and longer than they once were, the world seems off and it’s up to the kids to get old Hades and Persephone back in some kind of balance. In a repeated visual motif that’s all the lovelier for its simplicity, one character or another will present, magician-like, a bright red flower seemingly out of nowhere, as good a symbol of life, love and hope as could be imagined in a hellscape where fire and ice threaten as the only options.

Another element of Hadestown that’s sure to resonate is Hades’ ode to building a wall – a song that’s been part of the show’s development since before wall-talk found its way to the Oval Office. Performed in gospel-style call and response, “Why We Build The Wall” brings down the curtain on the first act, a showstopper in more ways than one:

We build the wall to keep us free
Because we have and they have not!
My children, my children
Because they want what we have got!
Because we have and they have not!
Because they want what we have got!

Dressed in costume designer Michael Krass’ eclectic and appealing mix of Mardi Gras finery, contemporary streetwear and Depression-era rags, the cast – from the gods and goddesses to the bumping and grinding “Workers Chorus” – is top notch (as is David Neumann’s choreography). Carney’s is perhaps the riskiest interpretation, his Orpheus sometimes moving with the herky-jerky motions of a spirit stuck in a body it doesn’t quite understand. The choice might strike some as mannered, but it worked for me: Carney, with his otherworldly tenor, seems as integral to the show’s intricate mix-and-match recipe as Gray’s glorious jazz diva panache and Page’s deep-in-the-grave baritone rumblings.

With an ending as moving as anything on Broadway – and for hades’ sake, don’t leave before the cast finishes its one-surprise-left curtain call – Hadestown stands alongside Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma! and Bartlett Sher’s To Kill A Mockinbird as this Broadway season’s visionary triumvirate, looking to the past and feeling undeniably, stirringly now.

This article was printed from