In the myth, Orpheus is the sweet musician who follows his deceased wife to the underworld, where he begs Hades, King of the Underworld, to let him bring Eurydice back with him to the living world. Hadestown relocates the tale to the Depression-era South; the precise location is not specified but from the occasional turn to Dixieland jazz and the set in whose center is a house that looks like it belongs on St Charles Avenue (with its second-story porch and curled wrought iron railings), it’s impossible not to think of New Orleans. Anaïs Mitchell’s folk opera pairs the Orpheus/Eurydice myth with the love story of Hades and his Queen, Persephone (Persephone’s bright shimmering green 1930s nightclub dress and the grey chiffon dresses of the three Fates give us a sense of the intended period).
Hadestown was developed over the course of 13 years by Mitchell, a Vermont singer-songwriter; Rachel Chavkin came on board as director and collaborator in 2013. The two reworked the materials into a show which opened Off-Broadway in 2016, eventually shifting to Broadway, where it won eight Tony Awards in 2019, including Best Musical, Best Original Score for Mitchell, and Best Director of a Musical for Chavkin.
A word about Chavkin: She made her name directing “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” which opened on Broadway in 2016. She is currently the Artistic Director of The TEAM, known as one of the pioneers of immersive theater. This is the second show she’s directed that is appearing on a proscenium stage in the Twin Cities; the other was “The Royal Family,” staged and the Guthrie – which I loved.
Orpheus and Eurydice is one of the best-known mythical tales (retold both by Ovid and Virgil), so I don’t think it’s possible to spoil anything – as Hermes in the musical announces: “You know how it ends” – not well.
In the background is the love story of Hades and Persephone. Hades had abducted Persephone, but Zeus ultimately decreed that Persephone would live half the year above ground, and this is our Spring and Summer, with Fall and Winter being the effect of her months in the Underworld with Hades. “Hadestown” interweaves the themes of the myths – love and hope and aspirations to transcendence, faith and faithlessness and doubt – with sprinklings of modern political relevance: economic inequality, poverty, capitalism, and environmental exploitation. Somehow it all works.
One marvels at the sheer excellence of the production: the constellation of talents assembled and shaped under Chavkin’s unique and characteristically exquisite direction. One also marvels at Rachel Hauck’s Scenic Design, Michael Krass’s costumes, and, perhaps most of all, Mitchell’s luminous score. It is a sensation onstage; it all comes together. It is collaborative theater at its best.
Looking extremely smart in an Italian three-piece silver suit, Hermes, played wonderfully by the electric Levi Kreis, appears as a sort of MC/narrator/boss of the combination juke joint and railroad station is the main setting of the musical. Young, inexperienced Orpheus is employed as a busboy there, writing music on the side. In general, the touring cast is terrific, but Kreis, along with Kimberly Marable as Persephone, and Kevyn Morrow at Hades, stand out.
The opening number has Hermes singing the New Orleans- and Blues- and Dixieland-inflected “Road to Hell,” and it is clear that the bad news within the play is going to come with energy and rhythm. The song introduces the three Fates, Hades, Persephone, and the five members of the “Workers Chorus.” Orpheus, and the (very impressive) onstage band. Hermes reports that the love story we’re about to witness will be very sad, a tragedy, but “someone’s got to tell the tale.” And who knows, he adds, “maybe it will turn out this time.”
Orpheus is sure that his song, when finished, will change the world – bring on springtime, and make nature bountiful. Eurydice loves, and tries to keep faith with, Orpheus and his dreams. They marry, but the waiting becomes too hard for Eurydice – the cold and hunger get to her. Gradually, she loses faith that Orpheus will ever finish his song, or that he can save them from desperation. She needs sustenance; she needs shelter from a coming storm. Hades promises better (certainly warmer) in the Underworld, and eventually she goes there.
This is a way in which Hadestown diverges from the origin myths in an interesting way: it grants greater agency to the two lead women characters. In the original stories, Persephone and Eurydice are largely passive, with little control over their destinies. In the musical, Persephone is a firecracker – assertive sexually and verbally. Here too Eurydice chooses to go to the Underworld (in the original story, she gets bitten by a snake and dies). This turns out, of course, be a poor choice; but the gift of agency is not always accompanied by the gift of good judgment or good fortune.
In the world down below, Hades is portrayed as a sort of capitalist energy baron, working his dead citizens hard to build walls and insert electrical grids. On one hand, this may be timely political commentary against climate change, and extreme capitalism. At the same time, it is sometimes confusing and under-explained. In an otherwise effective call and response in “Why We Build the Wall,” Hades and the workers explain that they are keeping out “poverty” and “the enemy” who “want what we have got.” But who (other than perhaps badly misguided Orpheus) is in a rush to go to Hell?
In the meantime, Orpheus finds a way to get down to the Underworld (helped by the magic of his singing) and attempts to convince Hades to let Eurydice return with him to life in the above world. The King of the netherworld reluctantly gives Orpheus a chance to persuade through a song, the song Orpheus has been trying to finish. It turns out to be one that has elements of Hades’ former love song to Persephone, and the old god’s heart is softened – a little. He permits Orpheus and Eurydice to leave, but on a condition.
It is a test of faith, a trial (and also reminiscent of the direction to Lot and his family – Genesis 19 – not to look back when fleeing from Sodom; Lot’s wife, of course, did look back, and was turned into a pillar of salt). Eventually, the doubts overtake Orpheus: “who do I think I am…that she would follow me into the cold and dark again?” Eurydice has left him once, can he trust her now? At the very last moment, he turns to see if she is behind him, and that is when they have to part forever.
At the end of Hadestown, the story is begun again. It is reminiscent both of the circular rotation of the seasons, and also the way we start up again from the beginning of the weekly chanting of the Torah or the daily study of the Talmud, right after finishing it. Not in any expectation that the stories will change, but in the hope that our understanding might deepen from revisiting the holy or classic texts. (By the way, Chavkin is Jewish.)
It is one of the greatest classic stories, and the acting is top-notch. Kreis as Hermes is, at turns, manic, debonair, sarcastic, gritty, and sexy (he seems to still have a thing for Persephone); meanwhile, his affection for Orpheus is authentically avuncular, sincere and profound. He wants to help while knowing how things will turn out. The range of emotions and expressions is tremendously challenging; it is a role that requires someone with Kreitzs charisma and delicacy and soulfulness. He is terrific; he makes the character his own.
Kimberly Marable is pretty spectacular as Persephone. When “above ground,” she is glowing and vibrant, carrying a basket of flowers as she helps bring spring/summer return to the living world. The stage is filled by her radiance. The “Lady with a suitcase full of summertime “ Hermes calls her. But she is equally charismatic in her darker moments in the land under the ground. “ Our Lady of the Underground,” Persephone’s big showstopper, brought down the house.
Equally wonderful is Kevyn Morrow as Hades, with his rich and powerful bass voice, and broadcasting domination and malevolence in his sunglasses and broad confident stances. He has a booming, classically-trained voice, but when he sings “Hey Little Songbird,” he can sound exactly like Barry White.
On the night I saw Hadestown, the role of Orpheus, usually played by Nicholas Barasch, was played by Chibueze Ihuoma, and the role of Eurydice, usually played by Morgan Siobhan Green, was played by Sydney Parra. One can only imagine the courage and fortitude it would take for understudies to go on as the leads on an Opening Night. In the context of that challenge, both actors did extremely well. Ihuoma has a gentle falsetto voice and nicely captures Orpheus’ unassuming sweetness and almost comic earnestness, as well as his essential dignity. Sydney Parra plays Eurydice with a perfect combination of street toughness, emotional caution, and deep need.
Mitchell’s music is also a highlight, of course (it won both a Tony and a Grammy). The songs hop across genres and styles – Jazz, Blues, Folk, Dixieland, Pop, and Gospel – and are almost always entertaining. It’s a close call, but I thought the most compelling number was the yearning, plaintive “Wait for Me,” which Orpheus sings after learning that Eurydice has descended to the Underworld, and he vows to follow her.
The costumes were enchanting – from the glamor of the finery worn by Hermes and Persephone to the rugged, leather-and-cloth factory uniforms of the Underworld’s “Worker’s Chorus.” And amid the show’s thrilling choreography and masterful blocking (sometimes involving a stage turntable), it was refreshing to see dancers with a range of body shapes.
Hadestown is a riveting, innovative, musically rich and brilliantly staged, beautiful show – if you can get your hands on a ticket seize it immediately.
Hadestown – written by Anaïs Mitchell, developed and directed by Rachel Chavkin is being performed at The Orpheum through March 20.