At once contemporary and timeless, romantic without being sappy, sad but not macabre, Hadestown is a wonderful piece of work. The music swings as the songs cultivate real, moving drama full of heartbreak and hope. It is the type of show that reminds us of musicals’ great potential, and the elusive ability of Broadway to excite.
Existing somewhere between opera and musical (nearly all the words are sung), the show with music, lyrics, and book by Anaïs Mitchell interweaves two Greek myths of the Underworld: those of Hades and Persephone, and of Orpheus and Eurydice. In the first, the god and namesake of Hades snatches Persephone from earth to be his queen, but didn’t bank on the grief of her mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, who refuses to perform her tasks in the absence of her daughter, and earth’s crops wither. A deal is hatched that splits Persephone’s time above and below ground, which divides Demeter’s joy, and hey presto: seasons!
Orpheus is a poet and bard who wins the heart of Eurydice before she is killed by a snakebite after their wedding. Undeterred, the musician travels to the land of death to charm its king and queen and win back his love. Here too a deal is hatched, and if you don’t know its ending, I’ll not be the one to spoil it for you.
Mitchell’s script plays free and loose with these stories. Her source material seems to be the Metamorphoses, but Hadestown belongs to her, not Ovid, and she has woven unique and compelling stories in and around the fabric of her epic foundation.
Her Hades (Patrick Page) is a Trumpian despot who runs an industrial factory of an underworld, hellbent on building a massive wall and calling it freedom, while Persephone (Amber Gray) drinks away the sorrow of her captivity. Orpheus (Reeve Carney) and Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) are teenagers with wandering souls and big hearts: he’s a waiter in a club that recalls New Orleans; she’s a mysterious stranger who arrives in search of warmth; love is instant.
Thanks to our narrator and psychopomp, Hermes (a perfectly cast André De Shields), and attendant fates (Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, Kay Trinidad), we are never allowed to forget that we are in the swirling world of myth. But the on-stage seven-piece folk band will also constantly remind us that this is an artifice and performance (at one point, Persephone introduces the musicians like at a concert). The union of these effects evokes Greek ritual theater, an ancient form of musical drama that Mitchell deftly harnesses for the contemporary stage.
Under the direction of Rachel Chavkin, this production churns with a constant energy. Effects like rotating stages and rising or falling platforms are familiar enough in major theaters by now, but Chavkin and choreographer David Neumann use them here expertly to evoke a kinetic world far larger and more intertwined than the space of the Walter Kerr stage.
And the performances are spot-on: Carney’s Orpheus is a wide-eyed, hopeless romantic, while Noblezada’s Eurydice is more jaded and reserved, only gradually wooed by the big dreams of her beau. Persephone seems to want to toss away dreams and love in order to drown her sorrows, but Gray insists that the goddess’s heart not fade with the winter. Page is perfectly smug and monstrous, his baritone like a hammer suppressing any dreams of freedom or individuality.
Part of Mitchell’s great achievement here is crafting a richly textured and dynamic world. The great fun of act one’s early portions makes the later somber moments that much more powerful: we may want to get back to the bopping club where the show began, but so too do the characters, and Mitchell is going to insist we share their yearn. This world recalls New Orleans, but it’s not quite the French Quarter, and it recalls Ovid’s underworld, but it’s not quite Hades: it is the singular and new Hadestown, a world at once familiar but distant, ancient and startlingly fresh.
And it is a production with the capacity to move and excite even those who know its ending. Mitchell is not hubristic enough to alter the key points of her sources, but she and Chavkin are resourceful enough to tell that story with great drama and passion, while also reflecting on the deeply and peculiarly human urge to sing a sad song over and over again. Layered, rewarding, and refreshing, Hadestown is a Broadway treasure.