REVIEW: “Hadestown”—an exquisitely crafted musical triumph
The ancient Greek myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and Persephone and Hades are gorgeously intertwined and re-imagined in “Hadestown”, a breathtaking and exquisitely crafted poem of a musical that opened tonight at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway.
Under the imaginative hand of visionary director Rachel Chavkin, who developed the piece alongside composer, lyricist, and book writer Anaïs Mitchell, “Hadestown” is easily the most tautly constructed and beautifully realized musical on this side of “Hamilton” (2015)—a riveting, heart-wrenching, and sumptuous folk opera that vibrantly renders some of mankind’s oldest and most enduring myths as an epic and compelling piece of modern musical theatre.
It is, in a word: thrilling, and it stands as a testament to the irreplaceable importance of craft, vision, patience, and persistence.
“Hadestown” was casually conceived by Ms. Mitchell as a DIY community theatre project among friends in Vermont 13 years ago. What began as a concert-like meditation on an iconic myth evolved into a celebrated 2010 song-cycle concept album.
Impressed by Ms. Chavkin’s work on “The Great Comet”, Ms. Mitchell reached out in 2012 to begin a collaboration that resulted in a workshop at Dartmouth College in 2014 and productions at New York Theatre Workshop in 2016, Edmonton in 2017, and at The Royal National Theatre in London in 2018.
Along the way, the two have meticulously shaped a musical unlike any other you have ever seen—one that seamlessly integrates all the varied elements of musical theatre in a feat of uncommon engineering perfection. Just as a flower knows when it is time to bloom, its exquisite architecture unfolding—delicate and ephemeral—so, too, does “Hadestown”.
As an epic poem, it is devoid of a firm setting in time or place, but Rachel Hauck’s set design evokes the spirit of a basement music hall in the French Quarter of New Orleans, with a pale green curved wall buttressed by tiered platforms for the seven-piece on-stage band, and centered by a winding wrought-iron staircase that leads to a balcony with shuttered doors. The main playing space, a round-shaped floor below, features three concentric turntables where the story unfolds and literally moves.
The “ah-hah” moment in developing “Hadestown” from a concert to a musical was the addition of Hermes (André De Shields), messenger of the Greek gods, a character traditionally outside the immediate myths at hand who serves as emcee. A legendary actor, Mr. De Shields, a two-time Tony Award nominee who played the titular character in “The Wiz” (1975), struts onto the stage in a silver suit and a larger-than-life personality befitting his status as a god, overseeing and commenting on the action with an otherworldly panache.
And thus begins the familiar tale—“a sad song”, “a love song”, “a tragedy”. As Eurydice, Eva Noblezada (“Miss Saigon”) is a wandering, lonely girl who is wooed by the music of Orpheus, a poor boy played by Reeve Carney (“Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark”) as a dreamer who exists in his own reality, “touched” but earnest. These characters, and the other gods, remain broad sketches, just as they are in the myths from which they are sourced, and befitting the form of this story as a musical poem.
Rounding out the principal cast are a trio of bird-like Fates (Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, and Kay Trinidad), the volcanic and wild Amber Gray (“The Great Comet”) as Persephone, goddess of the seasons, and the deliciously deep-voiced Patrick Page (“Spring Awakening”) as her husband, Hades, god of the underworld—imagined here as a brutal industrialist developing his realm with a foundry, a power factory, oil drilling, and a mass of slave labor working to “build the wall”.
The metaphor is obvious, though the characterization—and a hair-raising song, “Why We Build the Wall”, that closes act one—dates back to 2010, long before Trump, who should not get credit for inventing the concept of politically-motivated walls.
Layered into the simple plotline of Orpheus and Eurydice is a larger, contemporary allegory about destruction of our environment and climate, the anesthetizing impact of unregulated capitalist exploitation, and the re-emergence of authoritarianism.
As Orpheus, the poet, dreams of the way the world could be while working on the one song he knows will restore order and balance (paging Roger from “Rent”), Eurydice is tempted to the underworld by Hades.
Orpheus descends to get her back, rekindling the love between Hades and Persephone in the process, and, with Persephone’s help, returning to earth on the condition that he cannot look back at Eurydice as they make the journey together.
Well, as you likely know, it is “a sad song” and “a tragedy”, because at the last moment, Orpheus does look back, and Eurydice is lost forever.
“Hadestown” is almost entirely sung, or else spoken in rhyme set to rhythm, and Ms. Mitchell’s score does the impossible: delivering legible, storytelling lyrics that are also poetry. Her music offers a rocking, organic New Orleans big band exuberance that is fresh, vital, and unique among musical theatre scores, probably because the 38 year-old singer-songwriter hails from an indie folk idiom that pays equal tribute to country and jazz Americana.
The score is well-constructed with smart callbacks and reprises, both musically and lyrically, and in the hands of the assembled cast with their considerable vocal prowess, the songs are lush and gorgeous.
I have rarely heard a purer voice live than Ms. Noblezada’s; Ms. Gray’s control is as out of this world as Mr. Carney’s falsetto; and Mr. Page plumbs depths of bass tones I have never heard on stage. Adding in the Fates—as strong a trio as they come—and the chorus, you are not likely to find a better sung musical on Broadway.
What is most impressive about “Hadestown”, though—an entire musical built around imagery and metaphor—is the singular, successful vision that emanates from the stage, which is the clear handiwork of Ms. Chavkin and her boffo team of collaborators, including the heretofore unmentioned Bradley King (lighting), Michael Krass (costumes), Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz (sound), David Neumann (choreography), and Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose (orchestrations).
Despite its upbeat tempo, the opening number declares that the story is a sad one—and it ultimately is—but Hermes says, “we’re gonna sing it anyway”, disclosing in the end that the story is retold “as if it might turn out this time”. It is that yearning, that trying, that keeps us all going. And that is as precise, honest, and bittersweet a sentiment as any I have ever seen delivered in a musical.
“Hadestown” is a triumph of craft and imagination, boldly poetic, rousingly political, and vividly beautiful. If I could live in the magic and the majesty of this musical, I would. While Greek mythology dictates that man cannot enter the realm of Hades more than once while alive, Fates be damned, a return visit (or a few) to “Hadestown” is definitely in order.
Bottom Line: Breathtaking and exquisitely crafted, “Hadestown” is easily the most tautly constructed and beautifully realized musical on this side of “Hamilton”—a riveting, heart-wrenching, and sumptuous folk opera that vibrantly renders some of mankind’s oldest and most enduring myths as an epic and compelling piece of modern musical theatre. This musical triumph is a must-see.