Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's recent review of Spring Awakening
Hadestown is a modern take on several ancient Greek myths, including "Orpheus and Eurydice," and "The Abduction of Persephone" (by Hades). It tells the tale narrated by Hermes and follows an impoverished young woman, Eurydice, who falls in love with a likewise poor songwriter, Orpheus. In desperation, Eurydice agrees to work in a hellish industrial complex run by Hades, thinking this will be her escape from poverty and the cold. Orpheus pursues her, testing the power of love in the face of enormous obstacles.
The show is the work of singer/songwriter Anais Mitchell. It debuted as a stage musical starting in 2006, with an album released in 2010. After a number of additional reworkings, Hadestown finally reached Broadway in 2019, where it won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical.
The Greek tragedies presented here have many parallels to modern day situations of economic disparity, climate change, and political manipulation, which, along with the universal themes of love, sacrifice, and optimism, make it a timely story. The underlying tension of the world of Hades, the over ruler of industry (as Hades is conveyed) versus the world of Persephone, who represents nature and seasons, is fertile ground for inserting two lovers in the form of Eurydice and Orpheus and for the tragedy to play out.
Mitchell's score is a wonderful and engaging mix of folk, American blues, gospel, and New Orleans big band jazz. The lyrics don't always stick to perfect rhymes, but they are poetic in nature and serve the storytelling well. Song highlights include "Road to Hell" (the introduction of the characters by Hermes), the energetic "Livin' It Up on Top" (Persephone's celebratory anthem), the hypnotic "Wait for Me", and "Why We Build the Wall", which sounds like it could have been written for a Donald Trump character, except that it was penned many years before his presidency.
Director Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812) applies creative, bold, and risk-taking strokes to the presentation of the material and characters. Everyday objects like tables and chairs are used to represent a river. A turntable is sparingly yet impactfully used to help convey travel. There's a perfect balance of style and substance in every aspect of the show as overseen by Chavkin. The choreography by David Neumann is mostly in the form of highly stylized movement of the factory workers enslaved by Hades, but the moves are intoxicatingly stunning and stark. Eric Kang leads an exquisite nine-piece onstage New Orleans style jazz band, featuring some superb trombone work by Emily Fredrickson.
As Orpheus, J. Antonio Rodriguez shows off a distinct and beautiful tenor voice, and he embodies the naïve yet hopeful protagonist with great skill. Hannah Whitley aptly captures the desperation of the battered Eurydice and sings the role well. Lana Gordon supplies the playful and spirited energy of Persephone, but also effectively conveys the serious truths about the importance of love in a chaotic and decaying world. Gordon performs her numbers with aplomb and is an audience favorite. As Hades, Matthew Patrick Quinn is an imposing figure physically, thanks to his height, booming baritone/bass voice which is put to great use, and commanding stage presence. Nathan Lee Graham is a uniquely talented performer who is well-suited to the role of Hermes, with a turn that is quite reminiscent to that of Andre De Shields, who won a Tony Award for the role. The remaining ensemble members likewise provide memorable and praiseworthy performances. Several lead performers might be wise to ensure that the stylized speech or singing to fit their character doesn't impede the audience's ability to understand what they are communicating.
The musical takes place in two major settings: Depression-era New Orleans (including a bar/restaurant and a train station to the underworld) for those that are alive; and Hadestown, the underground realm of the dead. The handsome set design by Rachel Hauck certainly captures the essence of New Orleans, and there are a few unexpected reveals to convey the underworld which won't be spoiled in this review. Bradley King's lighting design is extremely varied, with stark contrasts between bold colors (often lit from the floor) and bright white effects, and lighting from swinging lamps, head-mounted miners' bulbs, and back-wall lights which intentionally blind the audience (temporarily) make for a big impact. The attractive costumes by Michael Krass clearly demonstrate the economic dichotomy of the characters and have theatrical flair, featuring odes to the New Orleans second line tradition.
The national tour of Hadestown demonstrates that unique and creative ideas, carefully cultivated until they are ready for widespread consumption, can have stunning results–those of a true artistic achievement. With an extremely talented touring cast performing the interesting material, this show is sure to challenge, educate, and entertain audiences.
Hadestown runs through April 30, 2023, at the Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please call 513-621-2787 or visit cincinnati.broadway.com. For more information on the tour, visit hadestown.com/tour.