BWW Album Review: HADESTOWN Journeys To A Lush, Rollicking Underworld

By: Oct. 09, 2017
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A post-apocalyptic Depression-era retelling of an ancient Greek myth may not seem like obvious subject matter for a musical. But Hadestown, which ran at New York Theatre Workshop in the summer of 2016, took this bizarre concept and ran with it. Written by Anais Mitchell, Hadestown weaves together an industrial allegory and sweeping romance with the myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and Hades and Persephone. The bluesy score sweeps listeners away on this epic journey, thanks to the new live cast album, released by Warner Music Group/Ghost Light Records.

"Road to Hell" kicks things off as Hermes (Chris Sullivan) introduces us to the key players in this story of "someone who tries." With a gritty, raspy voice that sounds straight out of the Jazz Age, Sullivan's Hermes becomes our narrator for the evening and bookends the album with the expected but devastating ending "Road to Hell II."

The jazzy speakeasy sound seems like a natural fit for this story: a tale about longing and an enchanting yet dangerous underworld - which is precisely what speakeasies were: simultaneously gritty and romantic, glamorous yet inescapably based in the unpleasant realities of life. The "underworld" of industrial work is similarly mythologized here (Hades owns the mine in which many of the characters work), in lilting jazz songs that almost sound like gospel refrains, with all the connotations that genre and its history bring.

Among critics and fans alike, Hadestown has drawn occasional comparisons to the late lamented Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. The obvious reason, of course, is that the shows are both off-the-beaten-track retellings of classic tales, share a director (Tony nominee Rachel Chavkin), and star Amber Gray (Comet's Helene, here Persephone). In some ways, the comparisons are understandable: both are dense, offbeat shows that break out of what we "expect" musical theatre to be and mash up genres and styles into a singular experience. But it would be unfair to simply classify Hadestown as a replacement for Great Comet. Where the latter drew on Russian folk music, electronica, and unusual atonal melodies, the former is a little more recognizable from a genre perspective, alternating between American folk and jazz in the New Orleans tradition.

In the folk category are songs such as Orpheus's "Epic II" and "Epic III," in which Damon Daunno's young lover writes image-filled songs of aching beauty. The gentle, acoustic sound is perfectly complemented by Daunno's voice, ably switching from the expected "alternative" sound into a pure falsetto. And Nabiyah Be soars as Eurydice, particularly on the Act 1 ballad "All I've Ever Known," a soaring, folk-tinged meditation on independence and love. Jazz imbues ensemble numbers (such as "Way Down Hadestown") with a narrative quality and a gospel-esque call-and-response sound. The Fates (Lulu Fall, Jessie Shelton, and Shaina Taub) bring a bit of early girl group sound with gorgeous harmonies on "Word to the Wise" and other songs interspersed throughout the album. Patrick Page, as the sinister Hades, tears through songs like "Hey Little Songbird" and "His Kiss, The Riot" with a suave charisma and gravelly baritone that sounds straight out of a gritty underworld itself. And "Why We Build The Wall," the powerful Act 1 finale (with lyrics like "The wall keeps out the enemy/ We build the wall to keep us free), has more layers of music and meaning to unpack than some scores have in their entirety.

And as for Gray, she is far and away the star of the album, even among so many top-notch turns. Her voice, the brassy, enchanting instrument of a speakeasy chanteuse, finds every nuance in two of the best songs of the entire album: "Livin' It Up On Top," a rollicking paean to making the most of time, and "Our Lady of the Underground," a slower, bluesy number for the queen of the underworld.

The one drawback to this album is that, for one reason or another, the song list is incomplete; several numbers from the show are left off the recording, leaving small gaps. It's still a wild, wonderful ride, and still possible to follow, but it's a pity that a handful of songs didn't make the album cut. But all in all, this is one road to hell that I will gladly trod again and again and again.


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