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The road to Hell is paved with tuneful music, invigorating storytelling, and rich reinvention of familiar characters. Hadestown, the wildly popular musical now on a national tour, weaves together two complicated love stories from Greco-Roman mythology, transporting them to an arrestingly contemporary context and creating a unique, unforgettable world of sound along the way.
Composer Anaïs Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin draw parallels between the youthful, doomed romance of Orpheus and Eurydice and the possessive marriage of Hades and Persephone that intertwine with modern-day themes. Allegories of modern-day class struggle, the treatment of women at the hands of men, and the battle to keep relationships burning with passion add fresh perspective to the drama. The touring production, now playing a two-week engagement at the Academy of Music, sacrifices none of the vitality of its Broadway counterpart, which won eight Tony Awards in 2019.
The Orpheus myth has captivated playwrights and composers from Gluck to Sarah Ruhl. Persephone’s elevation to Queen of the Underworld through abduction by Hades is less explored but equally resonant. Mitchell, who also acted as librettist, succeeds in showing how all-consuming love can have calamitous consequences, especially when it privileges the male ego. She also pinpoints the flawed, human spirits of the gods, and the sad, predictable turns of fate that cannot be avoided.
Above and below
The musical unfolds in a nonspecific present. Rachel Hauck’s barroom unit set, at once elegant and slightly seedy, limns the corporeal and spiritual worlds. Also straddling the line between above and below is Hermes (Levi Kreis), the messenger god who acts as interlocutor between realms, as well as narrative guide for the audience. He makes the feelings embedded in Mitchell’s music and dramaturgy unavoidably plain: “It’s a sad song, but we’re gonna sing it again.”
In Mitchell’s telling, Eurydice (Morgan Siobhan Green) no longer perishes from a snake bite—instead, she binds her soul willingly to Hades (Kevyn Morrow), the demagogic leader of Hadestown, after enduring hunger and drought in the world above. Once settled in Hell, she joins a convoy of nameless, faceless workers who toil to build a wall around Hades’s kingdom, while Orpheus (Nicholas Barasch) sets out to free his beloved from her misguided choice. Persephone (Kimberly Marable), who clashes with her gilded-cage existence and longs to spend more time above ground, struggles to reconcile her duty toward her husband and the empathy she feels toward the young lovers.
The conception of Hades as a ruthless leader and the narrative encompassed by the symbolic wall—which keeps the wrong people out while “freeing” the inhabitants of Hadestown—certainly have analogs in recent American politics. Although Mitchell began working on the show in 2006, it achieved its greatest international success at the height of the Trump presidency, which stoked the flames of xenophobia and nationalism that are undeniably embedded in this retelling.
The decade’s best musical theater
But the extraordinary score, like mythology itself, transcends time and place, and lends itself to more than one reading. Mitchell’s use of multiple musical genres, from Southern blues to Zydeco and polyphonic choral writing, creates a uniquely American tapestry of sounds and styles that leave the listeners enthusiastically training their ears to the subtle changes in the melodic language. For my money, it’s the best musical theater writing in the past decade.
And the cast and musicians perform it with energy and verve. Touring companies, by virtue of moving regularly to theaters of varying sizes and designs, tend to be crudely overamplified. Not so here—the production retains Nevin Steinberg’s understated sound design from the Broadway production, and the seven-person orchestra never pushes for unnecessary resonance.
Singing it anyway
Orpheus—here portrayed as a street musician writing a song to save the world—is given perilously high vocal lines that suggest otherworldliness. Barasch handles the demands with grace, deploying a rock falsetto that recalls Jeff Buckley. He and Green generate a sweet-natured chemistry that brims recognizably with the combustible components of first love.
The love felt by Persephone and Hades is more complex, of course, and Marable and Morrow do well in presenting passion on the wane. Marable brings a vibrant flair to her early scenes, where Persephone emerges as a classic good-time girl, then settles into the role of compassionate protector. Although Morrow’s lighter baritone is not ideally suited to all of Hades’s music, he captures the character’s charisma and menace.
As he leads viewers through the experience, Kreis proves an irresistible showman, with a golden voice and a winking, ironic countenance. Also thrilling are Belén Moyano, Bex Odorisio, and Shea Renee as a malevolent trio of Fates, who seem intent on foiling Orpheus at every turn.
The Fates are successful, of course—the story ends as it always does, with Orpheus turning around and condemning his beloved to the Underworld. (Spoiler alert?) It’s a sad song, but they sing it anyway. Yet there’s another lyric that more thoroughly encapsulates the musical’s ethos, a toast that Orpheus gives when Persephone returns to usher in the springtime: “To the world we dream about, and the one we live in now.” Hadestown invites you to see the beauty in both.
What, When, Where
Hadestown. By Anaïs Mitchell, directed by Rachel Chavkin. $20-$149. Through February 20, 2022, at the Kimmel Cultural Campus’s Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelculturalcampus.org.
The Kimmel Cultural Campus requires all patrons aged 5 years or older to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19. A negative PCR test can be substituted for unvaccinated children aged younger than 5 years. Masks must be worn at all times. Seating is not distanced.
The Academy of Music is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Wheelchair-accessible seating can be purchased online, by calling Patron Services at (215) 893-1999, or by emailing [email protected]. A limited number of seats near the stage have been reserved for the exclusive use of patrons with low vision or blindness.
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