By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out”)
With 14 Tony Award nominations to its credit, Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown is making its presence known in nearly every major category, the most for any show this season. Mitchell is making notable Broadway history, too, by being the first woman to join the scant handful of personages who have written the music, lyrics and book for a musical, joining the rarefied ranks of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Meredith Wilson, George M. Cohan and Noël Coward.
But while the musical in its present form owes much to the talent of Mitchell as a prominent Vermont-based folk singer and composer, it has also been lovingly developed and directed by wunderkind Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812), who oversaw its initial transformation from an off-Broadway live New York Theatre Workshop performance in 2017 into an award-winning West End production last year and helmed its Broadway opening in April at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
Hadestown is a remarkable confluence of two Greek mythological tragedies reset in nearly modern times with more than a nod towards traditional New Orleans-style jazz and folk music at its heart and soul.
The story of Orpheus, the son of a Muse who possessed a most impressive voice and sang songs that could make rocks cry, and his lover Eurydice, whom he hoped to rescue from the Underworld, is coupled with the tale of Persephone, the beautiful goddess whom the god Hades kept imprisoned during fall and winter, but whom he allowed to frolic on earth in spring and summer.
Whenever any mythological tale is unveiled in which gods and mortals are pitted against each other, the gods are depicted as having human failings and shortcomings and the outcome is always disastrous for the mortals. These are tragic tales, after all, but they are nevertheless compelling.
In Hadestown, we are first introduced to the members of the cast by no less than Hermes himself (André de Shields) in “The Road to Hell,” an infectious piece that is used as an introductory narrative device and later reprised for dramatic effect. Hermes sinuously struts about the stage while the spirited six-piece orchestra, spread about the edge of the elevated set, is conducted by pianist and accordionist Liam Robinson.
DeShields acts as the narrator for the work, observing from afar at times before returning center stage to lead the ensemble as its impromptu captain or coach.
Hermes announces the arrival of Persephone (Amber Gray) as she steps off the train “with a suitcase of summertime” and dances her way into the audience’s heart, taking several sips from a silver flask in her hand of what appears to be more than just nectar. She leads the cast in “Livin’ It Up On Top,” which further explores the duality of the goddess of the seasons, a woman who exclaims “When the sun is high, brother so am I.”
It’s little touches like that which not only update the cold and imperious nature of these mythological characters, but imbue them with a sense of modernity and a familiarity to which the audience can relate.
The ill-fated couple of Orpheus and Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) is introduced next as we hear of “the tale of love that never dies” between them. His effort to rescue his love is at first considered in Mitchell’s poetic phrasing as “someone…who tries.” But in her account, Eurydice does not suffer a deadly snake bite on her wedding day, but instead longs to live on more than just the pure love offered to her by Orpheus.
In “All I’ve Ever Known,” she sings to Orpheus at first, content to “hold him forever,” but it’s not long after that she hungers for a full belly instead of an earful of song from her lover.
Coming up from the depths of the earth, emerges the god Hades (Patrick Page), who announces his arrival to his beleaguered bride. “You’re early,” she shouts. “I missed ya,” he snarls back in a deep, dark basso voice in “Way Down Hadestown.”
In this short and rapid exchange, Mitchell has revealed the essence of the strained relationship between the two. Persephone wants to frolic under the sun, while her husband, who longs for her, establishes a system of wealth and plenty below with the labor of his subjects – the dead. Persephone is repulsed by his advances, while he seeks companionship. He literally builds a wall to contain her and what he considers important, affluence.
Her lack of affection leads to his pursuit of another to take her place, because gods are impatient, it would seem, and divorce is never an option. Hades’ contract with Eurydice is born of despair and signed with the blood of tragedy.
The book’s dramatic device of building a wall and its poetic representation of Hadestown as a concentration of wealth and avarice is best told in “Why We Build the Wall,” a conversation between Hades and his subjects. While the song is fodder for present-day politicos, it is a delicious and biting satirical commentary. Men on earth, after all, have built walls to keep others out for millenia.
The richness of the poetry and the music coupled with the incredibly inventive choreography by David Neuman makes Hadestown a unique Broadway experience. We are drawn into the complicated relationships of the principals in a way that make us empathize with their plight. We cheer on Orpheus in his struggle and even learn to care for the hardened and intractable Hades as the stories unfold.
In addition to the principal performers, three outstanding backup singers – the Fates – do an excellent job of acting as a proper Greek chorus, as one might expect from a traditional Greek tragedy. Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer and Kay Trinidad fill these roles with superb harmonies and are especially prominent as counterpoint in songs with Eurydice like “When the Chips Are Down,” “Anyway the Wind Blows” and “Gone, I’m Gone,”
Hadestown is the musical to beat this this year for the Tony Awards, not because of its 14 nominations, but because it is so different and unlike anything else that has come to Broadway in recent memory. When the music is upbeat, there is nothing to stop toes from tapping and hands from clapping. When the production slows and saddens, it is hard to find dry eyes in the theater.
This is not just a psychological paring of couples with relationship troubles. It is a thorough theatre experience that combines Mitchell’s exquisitely crafted songs with her stinging poetry and beautifully executed choreography. Three separate turntables moving at differing speeds create perfectly timed sequences with the songs. In addition, a large platform extends at time from the center of the stage, rising 10 feet above, or descends to the underworld with figures on the platform literally going to hell.
The biggest complaint Tony voters will have is in trying to decide between De Shields or Page as the Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Both have important parts and it could easily be suggested that Page’s role is crucial to all of the action and should have elevated him to consideration as a leading actor.
Hadestown not only deserves to win the Tony Award as this year’s best musical, it also deserves to have an extremely long run as a result. The work turned in by De Shields, Gray, Noblezada and Page should not be missed, nor the wonderfully rendered lighting design by Bradley King and the scenic design by Rachel Hauck.
Hadestown, directed by Rachel Chavkin with book, music and lyrics by Anaïs Mitchell, continues its open Broadway run at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 w. 48th St. in New York. The show runs two hours and 25 minutes with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets, click here.