New York City Theater
New York Theater Workshop
The setting is Hades, but it may just as easily be New Orleans. Although overlong, the jazzy, bluesy, youthful, sung-through “Hadestown” is both riotous and rebellious, a faithful take on the Orpheus and Eurydice legend for our troubled times. Reconfiguring the seats at the New York Theater Workshop into a three-sided bleacher arrangement, the environmental production surrounds the audience with a mostly young cast that sings and dances the classic myth of the lyre-player (here guitar) who almost frees his wife from the clutches of Hades, the ruler of the underworld.
“Where you’re going, no one knows / Any way the wind blows,” goes one lyric. Hades warns Orpheus not to look back at Eurydice as he leads her from the under to upper world. The lesson for all is to let the world we want to live in be the one we’re living in now. Make a choice, stick to it, look ahead.
Score, staging and performances coalesce into an evening as much filled with longing as celebration. Certainly Hades’ wife, Persephone, harbinger of spring who lives underground in winter, doesn’t bemoan her fate. As portrayed by the marvelous Amber Gray, costumed in a bright green dress strewn with flowers, sunshine and joy follow her everywhere.
As Hades, basso profundo Patrick Page is sinister and seductive yet oddly likable. An egotistical bully, he even proposes building a wall to keep out the have-not enemies who envy the haves. (Except for the likable part, do we hear echoes of a certain presidential hopeful?)
Page and Gray make an ingratiating pair, even when in the midst of a marital scrimmage. Damon Daunno as a yearning Orpheus and Nabiyah Be as a sensible Eurydice are attractive singers and actors, while Chris Sullivan is an amiable Hermes, guiding us throughout. As the chorus of Fates, Lulu Fall, Jessie Shelton and Shaina Taub are gleeful harmonizers, backed by a skillful seven-piece onstage band.
Initially a concept album written by Anaïs Mitchell, “Hadestown” went through a series of workshops. The result is Mitchell’s eclectic score, a folk opera smartly staged by Rachel Chavkin. By having her cast flow in and out of the audience, Chavkin personalizes the action, drawing us in, making us care. We want Orpheus to not look back, we want him out of the underworld. It wouldn’t be the first time the myth has been a metaphor for life and death. From a Gluck opera to a fantastic film by Cocteau as well as the lyrical “Black Orpheus,” writers have been drawn to the tale.
But “Hadestown” is very much “now.” A twisted tree dominates one corner of the stage, symbolizing a bleak world. Still, we’re admonished to see what could be, not what is; that theme, if developed further, might make the musical less an illustrated songfest and more a work of complexity and challenge. As another lyric has it, “Dreams are sweet, until they’re not / Flowers bloom, until they rot.”
--David A. Rosenberg
June 6, 2016