The viability of live, in-person theater remains a tenuous and tentative proposition these days. Yet, Broadway has soldiered on since reopening last fall, and no show better represents the indomitable spirit of this return than “Hadestown,” Anaïs Mitchell’s musical take on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
A timeless story about love and loss, Hadestown’s relevance is amplified for modern audiences through Ms. Mitchell’s lively score, which blends jazz, blues, folk and rock into a complex, progressive sound, and through a narrative that bridges conceptual gaps between Greek legend and the Christian tradition, and between modern sociopolitical concerns and the spiritual roots of suffering.
In the original myth, Eurydice dies from a serpent bite and descends into the Underworld, where all souls were believed to go after death, whether to Elysium or Tartarus; although, it should be noted that, for the Greeks, the entire Underworld, including Elysium, was considered a dreary counterpart to life on earth or to the Kingdom of the Gods, with Hades simply presiding over the sad reality of death.
Ms. Mitchell blends this ancient perspective with Christianity’s and even modernity’s idea of hell. In her retelling, Hades finds himself amidst a transformation from the strict yet somewhat benign persona of tradition to a greedy and covetous god reflective of the evils associated with the devil. He summons his wife, Persephone, to return to the Underworld early and to abandon her mission to bring springtime every year and sustain life until the onset of winter. Persephone obeys, plunging the earth into an early winter and creating a crisis for Eurydice, who loves Orpheus, a poor, idealistic musician, yet fears for her own security in a bleak world.
Perhaps seizing upon the presence of a serpent in the original, Ms. Mitchell seems to draw a correlation to the Fall of Man in Eurydice’s downfall because, in her retelling, Eurydice is not bitten by a serpent but instead tempted by Hades’ promise of protection from the cold and hunger she faces as Orpheus is off composing a song to transform the world.
When he discovers she has gone to the Underworld out of despair of his providing for her, Orpheus embarks upon a journey akin to that of his legend, in which he plays beautiful music to charm the dreaded guardians of the Underworld to allow him to pass. In the Underworld, Ms. Mitchell contrasts the values that give life to the soul with those that bring about death by juxtaposing the innocence of Orpheus and the beauty of his music with the greed of Hades and his bleak vision. This conflict comes to a head in their standoff over the life of Eurydice, when Orpheus must summon the memory of Hades as a god of legend who is not the devil and not defined by the evil consuming him.
In this way, Orpheus might be seen as a Christ-figure, coaxing the god of death to relinquish his sting, at least for a moment, before the power of love. Reeve Carney portrays the face of innocence in a fallen world as the character of Orpheus, with a painful and humorous awkwardness that belies his steadfast confidence in the ability of good to triumph over evil. Carney’s high tenor pierces the intimate setting of the Walter Kerr Theater with heartbreaking melodies that awaken the soul to a longing for lost ideals and failed dreams.
Patrick Page portrays the perfect counterpart to this purity as Hades, the gravelly-voiced man of the world with a beneath the basement bass. His character’s bizarre undertakings in Persephone’s most recent absence from the Underworld reflect the excesses of the industrialized world as Hades robs his subjects of even an awareness of their own existence in his paranoid ambition to build a wall to keep out poverty, creating a self-defeating cycle that both entraps and impoverishes all within his domain.
Persephone is played by Amber Gray, who entertains throughout, with her character often staggering from drink, a habit she has formed as bringer of joy to the earth but done to excess due to her frustrations with Hades. Upon being summoned back to the Underworld and finding that Hades has been transforming the place into hell, Gray’s Persephone questions with a tone of disdain, “In the coldest time of year/ Why is it so hot down here?” And with a string of humorously exaggerated blue notes, she adds, “Hotter than a crucible/ It ain’t right and it ain’t natural.”
Eva Noblezada adds her own bit of humor as Eurydice, whose jadedness at the outset of the story contrasts with Orpheus’ idealistic exuberance. Upon being introduced to Orpheus, she questions, “A singer, is that what you are?” and he says, “I also play the lyre,” and she says, “Oh, a liar, and a player too! I’ve met too many men like you.” Noblezada goes on to adeptly navigate her character through a series of vacillations between hope and despair as she balances her desire for survival with her love for Orpheus.
André De Shields sets the tone for the story as Hermes, messenger of the Gods, guide to the Underworld, and in this retelling, the compassionate narrator and counselor to Orpheus. His character moves seamlessly through the story with dance and song as he opens the audience’s eyes with grace and subtlety to the depth of meaning in the legend unfolding before us.
De Shields’ Hermes is supported in his efforts to share the perspective of the gods and sometimes thwarted in his compassion for mortals by the three Fates, whose captivating and at times ominous harmonizing goes beyond mere articulation of the characters’ predicaments as they weigh outcomes and play a hand of influence over the lives they put into song.
Providing soulful backup vocals and bringing thunder to the stage through dance is the five-person Workers Chorus, who portray two groups of mortals, one a desperate yet festive lot of the living and the other lost to the Underworld. Through physically expressive acting, each member of the Workers Chorus seems to take the lead at times in drawing the audience into a realization of the stakes of the drama unfolding before us.
Joining the cast onstage with musical accompaniment worthy of Dizzy’s or Birdland is a seven-person orchestra that includes a lively piano, a sensitive violin, a soothing yet profound cello, a guitar to lighten things up, drums to push the pace, a trombone to bring hope amid suffering and a double bass to ease the pain.
De Shields’ Hermes opens with a reminder that this story is based on an ancient tragedy, and Ms. Mitchell’s retelling pays homage to this genre that was so popular among the Greeks and later embraced within the Christian tradition for its ability to crystalize the effects of human action and inspire empathy for others. As if to reflect the indomitable spirit of Broadway, “Hadestown” invites insight into the reason for storytelling, even when that storytelling involves tragedy and even amid tragic circumstances. It does this in a final surprise that celebrates the very act of performing stories about characters we love, an act that continually renews our hope even amid tragedy.
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