Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 17, 2019
Hadestown Music, lyrics, and book by Anaïs Mitchell. Developed and directed by Rachel Chavkin. Scenic design by Rachel Hauck. Costume design by Michael Krass. Lighting design by Bradley King. Sound design by Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz. Arrangements and orchestrations by Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose. Dramaturg Ken Cerniglia. Music coordinator David Lai. Musical director and vocal arrangements by Liam Robinson. Choreography by David Neumann. Cast: Reeve Carney, Eva Noblezada, Amber Gray, Patrick Page, André De Shields, Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, Kay Trinidad, Afra Hines, Timothy Hughes, John Krause, Kimberly Marable, Ahmad Simmons, Malcolm Armwood, T. Oliver Reid, Jessie Shelton, and Khaila Wilcoxon.
Call it a musical. Call it a folk opera. Call it a theatricalized concert. From the moment the lights come up on scenic designer Rachel Hauck's set that places us smack dab in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and the snazzy jazzy musicians start to play, and André De Shields as the god Hermes starts to sing "Once upon a time, there was a railroad line," you know you are in for a thrilling ride. This is true even as you understand that the railroad he's singing about will soon carry you straight to Hades. I mean, what the hell; sit back, relax, and just enjoy.
If you are new to the party, rejoice. You are in for a real treat. And if you are already a fan of Hadestown from its various incarnations as a performance piece in Mitchell's home state of Vermont back in 2006, as a concept album in 2010, or as its well-received 2016 Off Broadway production, you can also rejoice. Oh, it's been pumped and spruced up for its Broadway debut after stops in Canada and London. But it still seems fresh and new, thanks to its talented creator (book and music and lyrics by Ms. Mitchell) and its long-time champion and director Rachel Chavkin, who has been nurturing it for lo these many years.
Anaïs Mitchell is expert in using carefully-chosen words, including rhyming couplets, and surrounding them with inventive pop, folk, and New Orleans jazz-styled music to tell her story. It is the tale of a love so strong that it allows its hero Orpheus (Reeve Carney) to follow his beloved Euridice (Eva Noblezada) into the Underworld, armed only with his voice and his poetry, in his absolute determination to bring her back home despite her unbreakable agreement with the great god Hades himself (the thunderously bass-voiced Patrick Page).
And Ms. Mitchell could not have entrusted her work to anyone better suited than Rachel Chavkin. This is a director who knows how to put on a thrilling show, as evidenced by the production she helmed of Dave Malloy's Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, another larger-than-life musical that she shaped and retooled over several years before taking it to Broadway.
Euridice, whom Orpheus has asked to marry him after they have known each other for about 10 seconds, is unsurprisingly skeptical, though she is enraptured by his songs and his poems. But you can't live on poetry alone, especially when your belly is empty and the icy wind is blowing through you, and so Euridice succumbs to Hades' promises of food, shelter, and warmth she will have as a bird in his gilded cage. She boards the train and leaves the living world behind her, setting off Orpheus's quest in one of the show's loveliest numbers, "Wait For Me" that (nearly) ends Act I.
That song is only one of the outpouring of music and words and dance (choreography by David Neumann) that fill every moment of Hadestown. Musically, the show is a treasure trove, with 32 numbers listed in the program and a final one saved for the curtain call. The already well-known "Why We Build the Wall," which, intended or not, makes us think about you-know-who's wall, follows "Wait For Me" before the curtain comes down on Act I.
Act II opens with the Eartha Kitt-like purring voice of Amber Gray, tearing up the joint with "Our Lady of the Underground." You've also got the wonderful contrast of Page's bass, which smacks you in the face with his first sung notes to Euridice ("Hey, Little Songbird"), and the high tenor that Reeve Carney handles so beautifully as Orpheus. You've got the sad and bitter songs of Eurydice as she attempts to brave the cold and cruel world she was born into, and the narrative songs of André De Shields as Hermes (Chris Sullivan sang the role better in the Off Broadway production, but it would be hard to beat De Shields' stage presence whenever he's front and center). And, truly, has there ever been a more perfect trio of singers than Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, and Kay Trinidad as the Fates, who set our toes tapping and our hearts thumping whenever they appear?
Is the production perfect? Of course not, nor will it be everyone's cuppa. The story that is being told is a simple one that could be boiled down to a single sentence: Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy tries to get girl back. Neither Orpheus nor Euridice comes off as a real living being, however, nor should they. For one thing, they'd truly starve to death, given that Orpheus is a penniless ethereal wisp of a being and Euridice is like one of the poor orphans who come out of robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." They are symbols: of desire, of love, of loss, and, most importantly, of the eternal hope that maybe next time the story is told, things will work out better. If you don't buy that, then you will have trouble buying into the show.
But the music and the performances are the triumphs of Hadestown, with one gem following the other until the curtain call and beyond, as Amber Gray leads the cast in "I Raise My Cup" and the wonderful musicians, conducted by Liam Robinson, dance us out. So, I, too, happily raise my cup to this sublime evening of musical theater and to all of the magic and myths that keep us coming back for more.