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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - May 23, 2016

Damon Daunno and Nabiyah Be
Photo by Joan Marcus

You're looking down in judgment. You're joined by a couple of hundred other tut-tutters whose opinions are just as set in stone as yours are, but without whom you can't make the decision. There's pain to endure, as well, or at least discomfort: The chair on which you're sitting is stiff and oddly formed, makeshift, the best that could be found on short notice, and the hastily provided cushion beneath your posterior ill-fitting but so necessary you don't mind it keeps slipping away every time you shift your weight. You don't want to be here. And yet, in this time of trial, it's the only place you should—or can—be. For better or worse, your life, and the lives of everyone else in your community, depends on it.

Outside the doors of New York Theatre Workshop, where the musical encompassing this bizarre experiment, Hadestown, just opened, all of this is admittedly meaningless. But that's the stunning magic that writer Anaïs Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin have achieved here: they've made the inconsequential seem integral, and the forgettable seem legendary. It's not that there's anything so special about their concept, which resets the Greek myths of two tempestuous pairs of lovers, Orpheus and Eurydice and Hades and Persephone, into the industrial Northeast, or the writing, which likes itself way more than it ever allows you to like it. Their commitment to completeness, however, is utterly transporting, even when nothing else.

Scenic designer Rachel Hauck has transformed the usually conservative playing space into a rustic box that suggests how enterprising rurals might recreate Athens's Theatre of Dionysus if they'd only ever heard a description of it; it's been filled with those rickety, spine-tweaking chairs, and a withering tree, its branches leaching down into the auditorium, is competing for space and addition. The costumes (Michael Krass) are thrown-together casual duds with a streak of steampunk, lots of looks-cool-but-isn't leather and country fabrics. Bradley King's lights look as though they're forever defined by the train speeding past outside or the forger's fire next door: illumination that's not so much created as stolen. You are, it is always clear, in a place far removed from the safety of settled Manhattan.

That's very much the point, as the landscape is supposed to be ravaged, held together with tape and twigs: The economic downturn has eaten away the life and the structure of this place, so can you blame its inhabitants for thinking death is the only escape? The underworld, where jobs are plentiful even if the soul is sacrificed, starts looking mighty attractive to those who aren't exactly living in the surface, either. So it's no great shock that Eurydice (Nabiyah Be), looking for security her doting musician husband, Orpheus (Damon Daunno), can't provide, chooses that kingdom and its ruler, Hades (Patrick Page) as her eternal home. It gives her, and for that matter everyone, what they need—and in a life like this, the line between needs and wants is hopelessly blurred.

Jessie Shelton, Lulu Fall, Shaina Taub,
Amber Gray, and Patrick Page
Photo by Joan Marcus

This is all worth dwelling on, because even if you know how it all shakes out (which you probably do), the relationship between the events and their dramatic presentation could not be tighter. The evening, which was co-conceived with Ben t. Matchstick, skillfully arranged and orchestrated by Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose and musical directed by Liam Robinson, and choreographed with informal but celebratory precision by David Neumann, is a testament to the rewards that can be reaped from conceiving an approach and sticking to it no matter what. Lots of theatre claims to be immersive, but few accomplish it as totally as Hadestown does.

But for all its physical and technical brilliance, it's dull, even irritating, as an example of musical theatre writing. Mitchell, an acclaimed folk singer-songwriter, provides a distinctly American sound that weaves country, jazz, and bluegrass into a fascinating aural tapestry that lingers pleasantly in the ear. But as with other recent stage efforts from pop artists such as American Psycho (Duncan Sheik) and Waitress (Sarah Bareilles), it has no discernible interest in telling its story on the theatrical terms. Though positioned as kind of an opera—with a campfire sing-along vibe—it possesses a score packed with songs that prefer to live in their own little worlds than ever confront us in ours.

The Fates (described as "three old women all dressed the same," but played by the preternaturally young, beautiful, and individual Lulu Fall, FJessie Shelton, and Shaina Taub) start off with the staid "Any Way the Wind Blows": "In the fever of a world in flames / In the season of the hurricanes / Flood'll get ya if the fire don't / Any way the wind blows." (Don't ask what it means.) The lovers meet and mate to the bland romanticism of "Wedding Song," which could be about any two people, and wants to convince you that words like "can" and "bands," "heads" and "bed," and "maple" and "table" rhyme. Queen Persephone (Amber Gray) has an establishing number called "Livin' It Up on Top," which does not bother to peddle much vivid imagery: "When the sun is high, brother, so am I / Drinking dandelion wine / Brother, I'm as free as a honeybee." And Hades builds his industrial tyrant street cred with a first-act finale, "Why We Build the Wall," that's a by-the-numbers nativism critique.

What's adventurous in the recording studio rarely is onstage, and the forms have different—and typically incompatible—narrative thrusts. Hadestown was conceived, unsurprisingly, as an album (released in 2010); it still feels that way. Aside from the fact that all the women's roles sound as though Mitchell wrote them for herself, and don't take advantage of the range of their performers' unique cadences or abilities (another misstep in the Sheik/Bareilles mold), each new song arrives as a disconnected "turn" rather than an essential component of the plot, and even the ones that fit are little more than thematically related. Mitchell has no illusions—the script hilariously calls the score a "Set List"—but there needs to be more than her self-awareness. The show itself has none, and it possesses but a fraction of the momentum and originality it needs to stay aloft during its painfully extended running time of nearly two and a half hours. An editor who can keep the tale on track—particularly in Act II, during which almost nothing happens until the last five minutes—is desperately needed.

That's not Chavkin, who's a "big picture" director more than a cagey, laser-focused sculptor of musicals. (Her most prominent credit to date is Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, where, unlike here, diffuseness is a baked-in virtue.) Here, her work appears more that of a traffic cop. It's a role she fills ably, and she's led her actors to some fine portrayals within these strictures—particularly the ebullient Gray, and Page, whose slow-burn intensity makes Hades scarier than if he spouted flames with every ultra-low note (in which case, the theater would have burned down after the first preview), but the show itself needs more.

When an excellent performer like Chris Sullivan is lost in the narrator-functionary role of Hermes, onstage almost constantly yet making no discernible impression, something is very wrong. You feel more a part of the show than he does; Chavkin and Mitchell have gone out of their way to ensure that, after all. Brute force may indeed work in these circumstances, but that doesn't mean it's the best way to draw you in: Involving you, and itself, on an emotional level always pays better dividends. And for a world like Hadestown, where subsistence is the most sought-after resource there is, the people building it need to work both smarter and harder than they currently are.

Through June 12
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
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