Like with our recently reviewed Twelfth Night, I’ve been waiting a while to see what everyone in New York has been raving about regarding this modernish musical retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. People last season said that if Hadestown had opened on Broadway then, it would have beaten The Band’s Visit for the Tony, and I was like ‘Umm Kulthum is that possible?’ I’m a huge mythology buff, and I still remember the words to the title song from our fifth grade mythology play “It’s All Greek To Me” (forking excellent title, right?). My favorite line was “Zeus was their king and Hera was their queen/sometimes they were wonderful sometimes they were mean.” So true guys. And one of my many roles (I was a child star) in that play was Persephone’s best friend, so her myth has always been special for me (and probably is responsible in part for my longstanding hatred of men who want to control women). Combining mythology with an original score, Hadestown is kind of brilliant on paper, and luckily it’s extremely brilliant in real life. It’s the only musical in London producing such thrilling theatrical magic onstage that feels incredibly new and fresh, all while being not only an interesting take on a classic romance but also an allegory of capitalism vs. socialism. I KNOW.
Before we get to the show, I need to share a little glimpse into my brain. A few weeks before our performance, Husbo P asked what it was about. And I said “Oh it’s like a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice with all original music by Anais Nin!” Husbo P, being a man of knowledge, said, “Um, that can’t be right”, and I, being a woman of nonsense brain, said in an impression of Yente from Fiddler, “Right? Of course right!” and Husbo said, “Anais Nin has been dead for decades. Is it old music? Did she even write music?” and I, being stubborn, said “Well of course she wrote music because she wrote this!” and Husbo said “Well still, I think she died in the ‘70s…” and I said “Well this was written fairly recently so she didn’t die decades ago, okay? Maybe she died a few years ago, immediately after writing this score OKAY?”
Reader, Anais Nin, a French-Cuban-American writer, indeed died in 1977. I meant Anais Mitchell.
So, with an original, enthralling score by Anais Mitchell, Hadestown tells of how Orpheus and Eurydice, two poor dreamers trying to make their way in this world (or just find food), fall in love but get swept into the orbit of Hades, the god of the Underworld. They attempt to solve the age-old struggle of tragic love stories: the strength of love against the power of death. Okay that might be a direct quote from Once on This Island but it works here, except instead of just the power of death, O&E are also testing love’s strength against the god of death. Okay that’s in Once on This Island too. (Hey, as Hermes sings in the beginning, “it’s an old song, but we’re gonna sing it again.”) Well they mainly test love against doubt in that love, which as portrayed here is even more insidious and devastating than death.
Our lovers meet in a café that could be the setting for a scene in Rent, but maybe a few decades earlier. The vibe and the opening music make it feel very jazzy and steampunk, with Hermes singing how “on the road to hell, there was a railroad line” and immediately feeling excitingly like a jazz-age throwback. It sets a fun, intriguing tone for the show, which rarely has a low point or misstep in either score, book, or direction. Also, Todd Sickafoose’s orchestrations are wonderful too. Okay I don’t really know too much about orchestrating but I just wanted to talk about that last name because it’s how I imagine Samuel L. Jackson yelling on a plane if there were too many fools onboard. (I’M SICK A THESE MUHFU**ING FOOS ON THIS MUHFU**ING PLANE I’M SICKAFOOSE /end scene.)
As for that direction, as helmed by Rachel Chavkin, who staged my beloved Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway, Hadestown comes alive with great use of the space. I loved the efficient, effective use of the turntables and especially what’s in the middle of them, but it’s so compelling I don’t want to spoil any of it. And at a few moments, Chavkin’s genius shines through with actually jaw-dropping brilliance, most notably during Hades’s powerful song “Why We Build a Wall”. The staging and sound mixing at this moment was the high point of the production. This is where Chavkin’s command of space, as we saw in Great Comet, shone the brightest (along with the rising lights). It’s a truly spellbinding performance of a timely song that will have you riveted. I couldn’t blink or barely breathe during this song, the power of it was captivating, the kind of theatrical magic you hope to experience a few times in your theatre-going career. The song, despite being written in 2010, feels like a direct response to the current political climate. The incredible staging of that scene was, to quote the Great Comet, “really beyond anything.”
And speaking of feeling like a response to our politics, Hadestown uses the well-known myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and the authority of Hades to also weave a political tale, one that represents the evils of capitalism and the potential of socialism. It’s a remarkable thing to watch this musical and realize how many layers it’s creating in front of your eyes, that it’s so much more than a retelling of a familiar love story. Of course, it’s nothing new in theatre to have a show try to respond to the times or be political in some way, but it’s rare for a show to accomplish this mission so strongly while maintaining the ability to be truly beautiful.
The material stands on its own, but this cast is bringing it up a level. As Orpheus, Reeve Carney (best known for not dying in Broadway’s Spider-Man) is ideal as the skinny white emo boy who thinks everything could be solved with one great love song (*cough* Roger from Rent *cough* (except unlike Roger’s “Your Eyes”, Orpheus’s love songs are actually good)). His voice is the weakest, but he’s just so spot-on for that kind of dude, and he deserves credit for carrying the show. No one has even close to his amount of stage time. As Eurydice, Eva Noblezada (who blew us away a few years ago as the newest Miss Saigon) is adorable and winning, although I wish her impressive voice got a song that actually showed it off to its full extent. Patrick Page (also didn’t die in Spider-Man yayyy), with his truly otherworldly voice, seemingly coming from depths not of this earth, is the perfect Hades. Especially during “Hey Little Songbird”, his incredibly deep bass makes the predatory tinge of this song even more disturbing and upsetting. You can feel the lowest notes of his range in your soul, shattering any sense of calm you might have.
My favorite performances, though, come from Amber Gray as Persephone and Andre de Shields as Hermes. Gray, with that incredibly unique raspy voice that somehow becomes clear and strong whenever she needs it to be, is a surprising Persephone, strong and opinionated after a long life spent between two worlds – a point in her story much later than any we ever heard about before. Her moments shine the brightest in this show, especially when she brings down the house with her Act II opener “Our Lady of the Underground”, which will make you wish this show was running in rep with a one-woman show about Persephone. But the coolest cat on that stage is legendary Andre de Shields (also known as the original Wiz) as Hermes, gallivanting between the mortal and divine realms as only Hermes can. And as only Andre can, he commands the stage with his joyful movement, his soulful singing, and his ability to command your attention even when he’s in the background.
The cast also includes a spectacular ensemble. Chavkin’s Great Comet cast raised the bar for diversity on stage, and here she is again doing what she does best: challenging the rest of the theatre world to do better. And it’s not just an issue of diversity in ethnicities – her shows are also the only ones to have diversity in body types, something that truly should be commended yet is rarely talked about.
This is the first show in a while that I can’t wait to see again. It’s emotionally exhausting to watch (I can’t imagine how it is to perform) but in a great way. You know I hate not having anything to complain about but this show is extraordinary.
Hadestown is playing at the National Theatre’s Olivier Theatre until January 26, after which I hope it will be transferring to Broadway, where it is sorely needed.
Seating: The Olivier theatre is a big ol’ barn but there aren’t really any bad seats. It’s a huge semi-circle around the stage, so it feels like there are three sides of the stage to sit on. I chose the extreme stage right aisle in the stalls and it was a perfect view, but there are really bright lights that shine directly into your eyeline in the first 10 or so rows, so that sucked. Go farther up or more into the middle (which blows if you like aisles).
Stage door: All the leads came out and signed and took pictures except for Amber Gray (sob), who I believe does not ever stage door. Andre de Shields was the coolest, nicest person to ever talk to and it was honestly an honor.
Oh I do have a complaint: The show art pictured at the top is GORGE, yet the programmes (which you pay for here) are super boring black and white, just with the title printed and nothing else. I demand a sad-rose programme.