If you ask a kid: ‘what is a musical?’ they will most likely answer something along the lines of: ‘It’s a play but like, they sing, and they dance.’ If you ask adults what a musical is they will most likely describe a typical Broadway show, as opposed to a musical, a decadent production with lavish production value and huge glittery dance numbers. What a musical really is, is a theatrical production wherein music is used to portray emotion as well as narrative, dance is often added to create non-verbal storytelling or to strengthen the narrative. Hadestown in exploring the Orpheus myth goes back to the importance of song within theater itself, and by adapting a classic myth the production also explores the Ancient Greek theater itself.
Hermes (Tony-winner André De Shields), the narrator of the play, tells us in the opening of the show, ‘It’s an old song, from way back when, but we’re gonna sing it again. […] it’s a sad song, it’s a tragedy.’ The Orpheus myth is one of the most effective myths that has survived the hands of time: A young boy falls in love with the girl Eurydice. Though, due to her untimely death she travels to the Underworld. Orpheus finds a non-lethal way to enter the underworld intent on bringing her back to the world of the living. Hades agrees to let her go, on one condition: Orpheus has to walk in front of Eurydice until he is out of the underworld, if he turns around Eurydice will return to Hades. The writers of Hadestown have expanded the story by juxtaposing the tale of the young couple with the tale of Hades and Persephone. Whenever Persephone resides in Hades she creates winter and fall but when she returns to the surface spring returns. In the show the relationship between Hades and Persephone is strained, Hades has grown possessive creating longer winters by keeping Persephone. Orpheus with his song is supposed to rekindle their relationship to ‘bring the world back into tune.’
The Orpheus in this version is a son of a muse and a bit of a dreamer, Reeve Carney portrays the awkwardness of young love as well as he can hit the high notes he has to sing. His love interest is in many ways his polar opposite, Eva Noblezada plays Eurydice as a hardened woman, hardened by a world that is growing colder because of an oncoming storm. Her practical way of thinking pushes her away from Orpheus’ dreams and into Hades’ arms. Portrayed by Patrick Page, a man with an unbelievably godly low-bass voice, Hades becomes a shrewd industrial businessman. The owner of the factoryworkers of Hadestown and the conductor of ‘the Electric City.’ Persephone, his wife, is portrayed by the energetic Amber Gray, she brings a growl to her Persephone that makes her less of the damsel we’re used to seeing her as in the myth. She married Hades for love, but the love has run out so she has turned to booze. She gets the two major production numbers ‘Livin’ it Up on Top’ and ‘Lady of the Underground’ in which she plays the audience like a fiddle. By having her actually love Hades, instead of being forced to live with him the writers create an interesting character. It makes Persephone an active player in the story of Orpheus and it gives us an insight into her emotions that is very interesting to explore.
But talking about how incredible these performances are could not be possible had it not been for the genius artistic direction Rachel Chavkin brought to the production as the director. Closely working together with book- and songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, she created a show where the story above all else gets focus. There was no room for lavish costuming and sets that might have distracted from this fact. I mean after all, in the ancient times they didn’t use those either. Scenic Designer Rachel Hauck and Lighting Designer Bradley King thus had a challenge: how to create that focus on the story whilst still keeping the staging dynamic and visually interesting. Rachel Hauck does this by creating a staging that is very reminiscent of Ancient Greek theaters. The set has a big circular space with 3 revolving elements one of which is an elevator, this is the section that seems to reference the orchestra section of ancient theaters: where the action takes place. Then on ascending levels divided by staircases there is space for the band, a clear reference to the theatron of ancient theater where the audience would sit. Amidst these wooden set elements there is one very clear visual: a spiral-staircase in the back that leads to a balcony with a huge door. The set is surrounded by high walls painted in a blue-hue. That latter part of the set is used by Bradley King to create beautiful mood lighting. By placing lighting underneath said walls, the walls get an ominous shadowing whilst also carrying the meaning of the color they’re lit in. But Bradley in combination with Rachel Chavkin does his best work in the act 1 number ‘Wait for Me’ in which Orpheus travels down to Hadestown. Inspired by passing streetlights, Rachel has created a staging wherein the chorus uses swinging lamps to simulate Orpheus’ travels. It is one of the most artistically pleasing moments I have ever seen in a show and it brought me to the edge of my seat.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the actual Chorus, the Fates and Liam Robinson though, as well as Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose. The latter two are the orchestrators of the musical and they create such a distinct sound for the music written by Anaïs, using only a few instruments Michael and Todd are what give the iconic identity to the sound and feel of the show. Liam Robinson as Musical Director adds to this by creating incredible vocal arrangements that come through in the Chorus, a group of 5 actors who are called the ‘Chorus,’ and the Fates. For the fates Liam creates unsettling harmonies that are both haunting and beautiful whilst he uses the Chorus to harmonize with Orpheus to create a warmer feel for his songs that are supposed to bring the springtime back.
Because the show is sung-through and the set is so minimalist in nature the focus on song becomes very clear. The show was originally written as a concept-album and has taken over 10 years to get to the Great White Way and you can feel that it has ripened when seeing the show. Like a good wine the show needed time to get to perfection. Rachel Chavkin was truly deserving of the Best Director Tony as she has created a show that honors ancient theater with the most beautiful song. This show and its timeless staging is sure to become a classic to be reinterpreted in the future, but its current incarnation is perfection that needs to be observed.
Seen on: 11/13/2019, seen at: the Walter Kerr Theater, NY. MUSIC, LYRICS & BOOK BY: ANAÏS MITCHELL, DEVELOPED WITH & DIRECTED BY: RACHEL CHAVKIN, CHOREOGRAPHER: DAVID NEUMANN, MUSICAL DIRECTOR AND VOCAL ARRANGEMENTS: LIAM ROBINSON, ORCHESTRATIONS / ARRANGEMENTS: MICHAEL CHORNEY
TODD SICKAFOOSE, SCENIC DESIGNER: RACHEL HAUCK, COSTUME DESIGNER: MICHAEL KRASS, LIGHTING DESIGNER: BRADLEY KING, SOUND DESIGNER: SNEVIN STEINBERG,
JESSICA PAZ, DRAMATURG: KEN CERNIGLIA, CO-CONCEIVED BY: BEN T. MATCHSTICK, TECHNICAL SUPERVISOR: HUDSON THEATRICAL ASSOCIATES, ADVERTISING / MARKETING: SPOTCO, PRESS REPRESENTATIVE: RICK MIRAMONTEZ
DKC / O&M, SOCIAL MEDIA: MIKE KARNS
MARATHON DIGITAL, CASTING: STEWART / WHITLEY, COMPANY MANAGER: KIMBERLY KELLEY, PRODUCTION STAGE MANAGER: BEVERLY JENKINS