By Karen Isaacs
While jukebox musicals continue to proliferate, we now have Broadway musicals based on concept CDs.
Hadestown is based on Anais Mitchell’s 2010 concept CD of the same name. It is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and has been described as a “folk opera” featuring various musical genres including folk, blues, country, jazz and more. The Tony nominators loved the show giving it the most nominations of any show this season.
The show has so much that I should like – it is well directed, well cast, great scenery, lighting and costumes — yet, as I was watching it and even later – I just could not “love it.” Pleasant, enjoyable but nothing more. It’s difficult to put my finger on why this is so.
It’s set in New Orleans, in a club with a typical spiral staircase and band on stage, in what seems to be the ‘20s or ‘30s. It opens with almost a curtain call as the narrator (the Greek god Hermes played by Andre de Shields) introduces to us the cast. We have Persephone (goddess of Spring) arriving, three Fates, Hades (the God of the underworld and married to Persephone). They all seem to be performers in some type of show. But then there is Orpheus, a young man with a talent for music who is a waiter in the café. Soon, Eurydice arrives as a homeless waif and Orpheus is immediately smitten.
You may already recognize how this story varies from the more traditional story of the couple. In that version, (Ovid wrote one of the well-known versions.) Orpheus is the son of Apollo and the muse Calliope (goddess of poetry) and Eurydice was a beautiful woman whom Orpheus woos with his music and marries. They are happy for some time but have been warned that it will not last. Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies. Orpheus is so filled with grief that he decides to go to Hades (the underworld) to find Eurydice. He sings for Hades who offers him a bargain – Orpheus and Eurydice can leave but they must make the journey single file and if Orpheus looks back at all, Eurydice will be instantly returned to Hades.
By the way, Persephone was not really part of the original story – she was abducted by Hades and became Queen of the Underworld while also being associated with bringing spring to the earth.
The day I saw the show, the opening introduction of the characters, that almost resembled curtain calls were met with such wild applause it seemed as though each performer had his or her own fan claque.
In an attempt to make the show more “relevant” there are references to climate change from Persephone as well as turning Hadestown into a type of modern industrial sweat factory where the workers are robotic having lost their humanity and their memories. They seem like slave labors perhaps at a rock quarry.
This provides an uneasy contrast with the New Orleans setting of the piece. It is as if Mitchell had seen Urinetown and attempted something similar without the satire and sense of irony.
Rachel Chavkin is credited with both directing and developing the piece; she was nominated for multiple awards for her work on Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. But here the attempt to blend the period with the modern does not work as well.
Mitchell’s music and lyrics are repetitious; in multiple songs one or two lyrics are repeated endlessly, which can be a feature of this genre of “call and response” music. But it still doesn’t keep you involved or interested.
The performances of the god figures are very stylized, so much so that you are left viewing them as performers and not as characters. The individuals are excellent but the stylization keeps you removed emotionally from them.
Andre de Shields is Hermes (you can tell because there are little white cloth “wings” on his sleeves to indicate his speed) and his performance is mannered and at times almost “creepy” as I heard someone in the audience describe it.
As Persephone, Amber Gray is excellent and more than the others creates a character you can feel something for. But her movements again are very stylized. Patrick Page as Hades has either lowered his voice at least an octave or the sound design has lowered it. It sounds extremely deep and mechanical.
The young lovers, played by Eva Noblezada and Reeve Carney seem totally bland by comparison.
The small cast includes the very stylized Fates (servings almost like a Greek chorus) and what is billed as the “worker’s chorus” of five hard working dancers playing both the workers in Hades and the audience at the club. Choreographer David Neumann has them really working.
The best things about the show are the scenic design by Rachel Hauck, costumes by Michael Krass and the lighting by Bradley King.
Hadestown is one of those shows that is getting a lot of buzz, but I suspect will soon be forgotten as “just another show.”
It is at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th Street. Tickets are available through Telecharge.