“Let the world we dream about be the one we’re living in.”
In a mythological underworld that invokes the spirit and cadence of Woody Guthrie, The Great Depression, Robert Johnson’s crossroads, company towns, and robber barons, Hadestown is a mostly successful political-allegory musical. Based on the concept album by singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and directed by Rachel Chavkin, Hadestown manages to be both simple in structure but complex in references. With a lo-fi aesthetic and a stripped-down approach, the show tells us the love story of Orpheus and Eurydice through a 1930’s-style musical vernacular.
Here, narrator Hermes (the intriguing Chris Sullivan), dressed as a depression-era vagabond, beckons us into the world of Orpheus (Damon Daunno) and Eurydice (Nabiyah Be) who are in love but struggle in their poverty. The Fates (Lulu Fall, Shaina Taub, Jessie Shelton) follow these lovers wherever they go. Orpheus plays his guitar and charms everyone with his beautiful music but Eurydice works alone to provide for them and as winter sets in she finds his music does not feed them. Eventually Eurydice is lured into the underworld of Hadestown where she is promised she will not want. It’s king, fat cat Hades (Patrick Page), takes her soul in exchange for her passage to the beyond. Hades uses slave labor to create his industrial realm, but like any good despot he bemoans “I’ve got walls to build and riots to quell.” He explains he needs a walled underworld to keep out poverty (“They want what we have”) and argues he provides “freedom” for those inside his controlled walls. Once Orpheus discovers Eurydice is gone, he makes his way through the underworld to find her. Hades’s wife Persephone (Amber Gray) is persuaded by Orpheus’s love of Eurydice and implores Hades to let Eurydice go.
The question of their journey becomes how far would you go for love and how much faith do you have in each other. But the economics of love are inserted into the politics of power here and the show emphasizes that this love exists decidedly in a world of haves and have-nots. Though the musical situates itself in a construct of the “past” it easily draws parallels to today, particularly with Hades and his absolutist political rhetoric.
Most of the time the allegory works. Occasionally it is strained. Mythological archetypes can be tedious in their earnestness. With thirty-four songs, they do not all always nudge the story forward (always a risk with concept albums becoming shows). But it’s a talented cast and the music so often devilishly enticing that it is easy to forgive it some dramaturgical gaps.
Chavkin stages the piece in the round, converting the usual proscenium space of New York Theatre Workshop, into a Greek amphitheater. Utilizing brick walls on all sides, mismatched chairs rather than theater seats on wooden platforms, the space feels not unlike a host to a 1930’s barn dance with vintage microphones and safety lamps (scenic design by Rachel Hauck). There are even some sound design techniques (by Robert Kaplowitz) to evoke a retro auditory spirit. Costume design (by Michael Krass) oddly comes across a bit more modern than the rest of the endeavor—closer to boho quirk than dustbowl chic. Because the space hardly changes between earth and the underworld (at one point the River Styx is installed), the staging is driven by atmosphere more than objects.
The music therefore drives the engine of this production and picks up from where the design leaves off. It sonically conjures a time and place that is both in and of the past. The songs embrace a boozy, bluesy cabaret sound for some tunes and in other moments more of a traditional Americana folk vibe. But no matter where they are on the musical spectrum they are part of the same historic tapestry.
Vocally all four leads are terrific but when Orpheus says that Eurydice is stronger than he is I wish we had seen more from Be to illustrate this—though the musical does not spend a great deal of time fleshing out the depth of their relationship or her character. But when called upon to convey Eurydice’s conflicts she is stunned rather than expressive. The love story could have used an injection of sizzle. Daunno and Be though pleasant and present never quite heat things up. Because of that, the politics grab our focus more.
Amber Gray and Patrick Page as the underworld immortals inflect tension and gravitas into the story. Gray brings a broad range to her performance as Persephone who is happy-go-lucky on earth and morphine-numbed in Hades. Chris Sullivan, as the master of ceremonies, is delightfully magnetic.
With its political stripes on its sleeve this musical could be a cousin to The Cradle Will Rock. But beautiful harmonies and an evocative performances keep it from drifting too far into the didactic. Chavkin and Mitchell craft a vivid space to explore a probing political agenda.