Review: A Compleat HADESTOWN at Hippodrome Theatre

Now through April 16th.

By: Apr. 13, 2023
Review: A Compleat HADESTOWN at Hippodrome Theatre
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Every so often, a musical comes along that "contains multitudes." Such shows present so much remarkable stuff that they leave a critic barely able to organize information and impressions for his readers. Hamilton is such a musical; and now I can report that Hadestown, holding forth this week at Baltimore's Hippodrome, is another. Such shows are not remarkable just for being filled to the brim with matter, as a mere profusion of sights and sounds can still be shallow and derivative (looking at you, Moulin Rouge), but for the sheer originality and fertile creativity of its creators.

Of course the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, on which Hadestown is based, is not original at all, but seminal in Western literature (Virgil and Ovid had their goes at it) and has inspired countless modern adaptations as well, from Jacques Cocteau to, yes, even Moulin Rouge. Myths are oft-told tales pretty much by definition, and what originality they may display comes of necessity in the telling. Here the setting, evocative of the Depression-era South with strong notes of New Orleans, is rich, and the human setting, including the five central characters, Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes, Hades and Persephone, is richer. We would like to spend more time than the approximate two and a half hours the show allots to getting to know them.

Of these five, only Orpheus (J. Antonio Rodriguez) can be quickly understood; he is intent upon composing and singing the perfect song and being the consort of his new love Eurydice (Hannah Whitley). None of the other central characters is such an open book or so easily summed up. Euridyce is poor and hungry and distrustful, because being poor and hungry makes us both untrusting and untrustworthy, which means her moves are hard to predict. Persephone (Lana Gordon), bringer of spring and summer and the good things they entail, is also the consort of Hades, king of the underworld, and thus associated in undefined ways with Hades' sinister nature. Hades (Matthew Patrick Quinn) has fashioned an underworld that sounds dystopian, but he also has a willing workforce (the chorus) and a somewhat persuasive-sounding rationale for his regime, explicated in the song "Why We Build the Wall." (A number that resonates well in these Trumpy and NIMBY-istic times.) True, once you enter his kingdom you're officially dead (at least, after you sign the paperwork), but it seems you join an active and arguably civic-minded kind of afterlife. And Hades, the presiding genius, though often haughty around Orpheus and Eurydice, seems to have some kind of conscience moderating the way he responds to their plight, a conscience Persephone tries to encourage. And then there's Hermes (Nathan Lee Graham), partly the narrator, partly a character who interacts with the others, especially Orpheus. In the first capacity, he seems deeply moved by the story he's telling, and highly sympathetic to Orpheus and Eurydice, but in the second he comes across as cynical, hard-bitten, and often distant. Finally, there is the close-harmony chorus of the Fates (Dominique Kempf, Belén Moyano, and Nyla Watson, pictured above), who also range from participants in the action to disinterested spectators.

In making these characters so multifaceted and inconsistent, playwright, composer, and lyricist Anaïs Mitchell and her collaborator, co-developer and director Rachel Chavkin, run a great risk of our experiencing these characters as being without coherent centers, but that doesn't happen. Somehow we find ourselves trusting in the existence of the unseen connective tissue; it adds to the richness and depth of the experience. As in many folksongs, the character inconsistencies are just presented without apology; life and people are like that, those songs and this show may be telling us. And so we pay close attention to these characters, yearning to know them better.

And it is interesting that Mitchell is originally and apparently still primarily a folksinger, and the show began its long gestation process as a song cycle. Which is not to say that there's anything simple about the music as it reaches us now in this show. I heard distinct echoes of music from Spring Awakening, Urinetown, Brother Where Art Thou? and The Great Comet of 1812: all fine shows to keep musical company with. I suspect that many of those echoes are courtesy of the orchestrators Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose, but I'm not privy to who did what in putting the sound of the show together. What I do know is that the music is wonderful, full of plangency and depth and heart. And for the heart, we have especially trombonist and assistant conductor Emily Fredrickson to thank. It's great to have the orchestra onstage in more shows now, and one benefit is that we gain a better sense of where the dynamism in a great pit band performance lies; here it's especially (though hardly exclusively) in Fredrickson; she makes me think of Trombone Shorty and of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Of New Orleans, in short. The music is also great for the dancing, which, in this show, is superb. The chorus and choreographers David Neumann and Katie Rose McLaughlin provide a memorable background to and expression of the story.

And so, inevitably, one is drawn back to the story. This is a story about storytelling. At the very beginning Hermes and the chorus make it explicit:

It's an old song
It's an old tale from way back when
It's an old song
But we're gonna sing it again

And at the end, after the sad denouement that anyone familiar with the legend knows will come, Hermes and the chorus ponder the act of retelling a sad story, in a reprise of the opening song, "Road to Hell." Hermes' thesis seems to be that even if we know what became of Orpheus and Eurydice, we still draw inspiration from the fact that they might have reached a different end, and that there is still communal hope to be drawn from their aspirations if not their fates. And so, Hermes concludes:

It's an old song

But we're going to sing it again and again

We're going to sing it again

In other words, the very act of retelling - the very act we as the cast and the audience have been engaged in and will continue to be engaged in - is central to our identity as humans and necessary for our spiritual sustenance. Hermes' statement of our determination to engage in it thus comes across as nothing short of a benediction.

So, by virtue of all of these elements this show is compleat in the senses fostered by the archaic spelling of the word, what Webster's renders as "having all the necessary or desired elements or skills." The characters, the music, the dancing, the lyrics, and the overall message are all new and different, even if deployed in the service of "an old tale from way back when," and they come accompanied by a message of inspiration in the midst of tragedy.

A must-see.

Hadestown, music, lyrics and book by Anäis Mitchell, directed by Rachel Chavkin, presented through April 16 at the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center, 12 North Eutaw Street Baltimore, MD 21201. Tickets$100 to $207at and 800-343-3103.

Production photo by T. Charles Erickson


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