Put a great Greek myth together with an awesome genre-spanning score plus a superb cast and you get the downtown hit Hadestown, written by the versatile singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and playing at New York Theatre Workshop. Hadestown is a unique retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, which has been the source material for operas, literature, music, ballets, video games and numerous musicals and plays over the centuries (Ovid recorded his version in his Metamorphoses in 8 AD). Ms. Mitchell’s fascination with the myth inspired her to write a song cycle/folk opera, which had its initial performances in various venues in Vermont. An album was released in 2010 to critical acclaim and there were several developmental workshops of the musical before its arrival at NYTW.
Following the basic outline of this ancient story of love, faith and trust, director Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812), who also helped develop the material, fluidly moves the action inside a mini amphitheater with a seven-piece band set at the back, led by musical director Liam Robinson and some fabulous trombone soul from Brian Drye. The action spills out into the audience on many occasions, making us a part of the story. Dreamer and singer Orpheus (a sweet faced Damon Daunno with a ravishing falsetto), whose music tames wild beasts and makes rocks move, falls in love with Eurydice (the beautiful Brazilian/Jamaican soprano Nabiyah Be), a slightly more practical gal who isn’t so sure love can survive on music alone. Love is beautiful in the spring, brought forth by the annual arrival of Hades' wife Persephone on the train from down below. Sexy, sassy Amber Gray as Persephone sets the party atmosphere with “Livin’ It Up On Top”. But love grows cold when starvation and winter is at the door, and Eurydice is drawn to the security and warmth of Hadestown, not fully realizing the price she must pay. Hades (played to villainous perfection by bass Patrick Page) entices Eurydice with the seductive song “Hey Little Songbird”, promising Eurydice a full stomach, a job and protection -- and conveniently forgetting to mention that no one ever leaves Hadestown. Orpheus travels to the underworld and softens Hades’ heart with a song; the god of the underworld allows Orpheus to bring his Eurydice back to the world of the living under one condition, that Eurydice follow behind him and that Orpheus never look back until they’ve arrived into the light. But doubt creeps in, Orpheus turns around and Eurydice is lost to him forever. There is no Disney ending to the story, Hadestown hits with the full impact of the consequences of one fearful action.
Guiding us through the story are the three Fates (Lulu Fall, Jessie Shelton and Shaina Taub) and Chris Sullivan as Hermes, a magnetic master of ceremonies, charming narrator and wise sage. Mr. Sullivan’s stage presence is a study in “less is more”; he is riveting and endearing as he moves the action along with his blues-tinged vocals, sometimes pulling out a harmonica to wail upon. The Fates and Mr. Sullivan rock the house with “Way Down in Hadestown”, a foot-stomping New Orleans jazz-infused processional, and the pragmatic “When the Chips are Down”.
Perhaps the most ominous song is the anthem-like “Why We Build the Wall”, brilliantly staged by Ms. Chavkin with the cast dispersed throughout the audience as the smooth Mr. Page leads a rally, asking provoking questions in an insidious call and response from center stage: "Why do we build the wall? My children, my children, why do we build the wall? Because we have and they have not! My children, my children, because they want what we have got!"
And the chorus, whipped into a frenzy shouts back: "The wall keeps out the enemy, and we build the wall to keep us free!"
The lyrics are chilling and familiar in this election year. Hadestown is not to be missed!