The 2019 Broadway season is still in the process of kicking off and with it comes a slew of new musicals to hit and dazzle on the Great White Way. One of the shows that has been causing a buzz is “Hadestown.” The folk opera made its debut off-Broadway back in 2016, where it recorded a live cast album that has been making the rounds and building an online following as the show moved to a West End production in 2018. That production closed in January of this year and now much of the cast has returned for a 2019 run in the Walter Kerr Theatre. The production began previews March 22 and had its opening night April 17.
The genre-bending, anachronistic show is a stage adaptation of Anais Mitchell’s 2010 folk album of the same name. It’s a re-telling of the classic Greek tale of Orpheus and Eurydice set in the era of the Great Depression. The story is a classic but adding this industrial, impoverished aesthetic to it invokes a more real and human connection to an old story.
One of the most striking components of “Hadestown” is the set design. The bulk of the first act takes place in a restaurant in which Orpheus works as both a server and bard. The small band is spread around the stage and consists of violin, trombone, piano, bass, cello, drums and guitar players who are tucked away into the set in such an organic way that it makes it feel like you’re in the audience of a jazz club. There is a circle in the middle of the stage framed by a raised platform and steps, with a spiral staircase leading up to a door on stage-left. The set largely consists of metal and wood, and the floor of the center stage features a circle surrounded by two rings that all rotate. In Act 2, the story moves locations down to the titular Hadestown and the walls of the rustic club break out and reveal rows of bright lights and a layer of fog that covers the stage throughout the show.
The staging and aesthetic does a great deal to set the tone and atmosphere of the show, but despite both being excellent, it was the performances and music that brought the show to life on the next level. Most of the cast returns from the West End production, including Reeve Carney as Orpheus, Andre De Shields as Hermes, Eva Noblezada as Eurydice, Patrick Page as Hades and Amber Gray as Persephone. The Fates, who serve as a chaotic influence over the protagonists, are played by Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer and Kay Trinidad, the first two of whom are returning from previous productions. There is also a talented and diverse but small ensemble; there was not one weak performance amongst the cast.
Though the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is a staple of Greek mythology, it was refreshing to see this take on it. From the very outset, the show doesn’t hold back on how heartbreaking it will be.
“It’s a sad song / It’s a sad tale, it’s a tragedy / It’s a sad song / but we sing it anyway,” Hermes laments in the opening number. It does follow the traditional narrative structure of the tale: Orpheus and Eurydice meet, she dies, he goes to Hell to rescue her, they can escape if he doesn’t look back at her as they walk, at the last moment he does and she is ripped away from him and back into Hell. However, the setting and music of this rendition usher in a lot of political themes and imagery, relevant to the Great Depression, industrialization and today’s socio-economic situations. There’s a lot of commentary on income equality specifically and even a fair bit about immigration in songs like “Why We Build The Wall.”
“Hadestown” is mostly sung, but not entirely sung-through. A lot of songs can mean that actors sometimes focus more on their vocals than their acting but that isn’t the case here. It’s impossible to even say there were any stand-out performances because they were all honest and vulnerable in an intensely captivating way. From Carney’s high, tender crooning to Gray’s playful rasp and flirtatiousness to Page’s deep, gravelly and borderline terrifying voice, every performer shone when they were supposed to. I found myself engrossed in every moment and emotional beat of the show, laughing one moment and on the verge of tears the next.
Same goes for the band who kept the show on its feet and successfully navigated Mitchell’s blues-y compositions. This is another area where the show stands out. The band’s performances, Mitchell’s songwriting and the adaptations she made for the Broadway rendition are all brilliantly executed on a compositional and lyrical level.
It’s an outstanding show that I expect to be the big name come awards season and I hope it runs long enough that I can get up to New York to see it again, because it’s worth the price of two tickets.