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Review: HADESTOWN Can't Get Much Hotter

Broadway's deviously upbeat mythical musical tragedy steams into Philly on its national tour, here through Feb. 20.

Review: HADESTOWN Can't Get Much Hotter
(Left to right) Kevyn Morrow as Hades, Nicholas Barasch as Orpheus, and Kimberly Marable as Persephone.

A devilishly pinstriped god of the Underworld, a queen of seasons decked in Easter green, and a hungry-eyed woman walk into a smokey Louisianna bar. The woman asks, "Anybody got a match?" The bartender promptly falls in love with her, and a trombonist stands up and blasts some soul into the room.

Despite the unlikely setup, the Tony Award-winning Hadestown is no joke, though it stirred up its share of laughs on its February 9th opening at the Philadelphia Kimmel Cultural Campus' Academy of Music. The musical from director Rachel Chavkin and folk singer Anaïs Mitchell, who wrote the music, lyrics, and book - standing forth as one of four women in Broadway's slanted history to do so - is a sad song and an old one, as the slick-shoed Hermes (Levi Kreis) tells us. Nevertheless, this spectacular touring cast sings it with a soulfulness that will stick with us well past the winter.

A classical tale with more than a few twists, Hadestown follows the tragic love of Orpheus and Eurydice on a journey to hell and back along a soot-stained railroad line, charmingly narrated by the dulcet, boot-scootin' Hermes. It's no secret that Broadway cast member Andre DeShields left big shoes to fill, and Kreis (Million Dollar Quartet) works his testifying tail off cobbling his own winged sandals (in patent leather, naturally). He succeeds, of course, winning the audience and moving the story along with inexhaustible energy - even if, in this picky, country critic's opinion, it can be difficult to pinpoint the character's regional ethos, as the Osteen-esque persona Kreis brings to bear for some of the more soulful lyrics tends to slip beneath a New York neutral in spoken parts.

Orpheus, played by the rousing Nicholas Barasch, is a god-gifted musician bent upon finishing a song that will bring balance to the seasons of their climactically off-kilter world. A dreamer by nature, clad beneath his bartender's apron in a white shirt miraculously unstained by his thoroughly soiled surroundings, Orpheus's true gift is the ability to see past the world as it is and envision it as it could be. Outstanding from start to finish, the bardic Barasch brings the spirit of a young revolutionary to the role - an idealist and a lover, but no hopeless romantic, hitting high notes when he sings and dropping earnest gravitas when he testifies.

Characteristically tactless but, luckily, wingmanned by the wing-sandaled Hermes, Orpheus persuades Eurydice (Morgan Siobhan Green) to abandon her scrappy, nomadic ways for a life together. The courtship is cute - "Wedding Song" remains largely unaltered from its original form in the 2010 concept album, where Orpheus was voiced by folk god Justin Vernon - and Green makes good camaraderie with the rough-knuckled chorus members (later the coal-streaked workers of the Underworld), who bring much-needed movement to the two-set stage with David Neumann's animating if somewhat sparsely deployed choreography.

The lovers' honeymoon comes to a swift end when Persephone, played by the fabulous Kimberly Marable, is called back to the Underworld by her husband Hades (Kevyn Morrow), marking the end of a bountiful but brief summer. (Classically, Persephone's split-custody arrangement between the Underworld and the surface is responsible for the changing seasons.) Cold and hunger follow on the edge of a gathering storm, and Eurydice is left to forage for herself as Orpheus works on his music, oblivious to all else. When Hades visits the surface after a spat with Persephone and offers an out to the shivering Eurydice, she accepts a one-way ticket to Hadestown to join the ranks of "the employed," a corps of the deceased who numbly toil at a border wall meant, somehow, to stave off poverty and job-theft. Down here, Hades's voice reverberates as if in a political stadium, spouting a litany of dogma that the workers repeat in the eerie and perhaps not entirely fictionalized "Chant".

"Wait for Me" is a stand-out moment for the choreography as well as for Rachel Hauch's scenic design and Bradley King's lighting, as the set cracks open like the earth itself, fiery orange incandescents illuminating the Underworld as spotlights sweep the audience during Orpheus's fugitive trespass. It's the dynamic movement a show of this thematic scope needed, and the chance to hear Barasch dig deep and belt his heart out doesn't go amiss, either.

Morrow and Marable are magnetic from curtain to close, sure to set your heart squealing in the lynchpin number "Epic III." Foil to the blossoming romance of Orpheus and Eurydice, Hades and Persephone's love is a centuries-old smolder that the secretly insecure Hades attempts to rekindle by transforming the Underworld into a sweltering, industrial - erm - capitalist-scape, where diamonds, gold, and a booming fossil fuel business (who in the Hades are his clients is anyone's guess) replace the lover's melody he once sang to his queen. Morrow takes his character work to the next level, stealing laughs with a dark humor well fit for the King of Shadows and visibly grappling with his own inner conflict between the love he has forgotten and the empire he has raised.

Hadestown itself is a multi-headed metaphor, best approached, in this critic's view, with a reminder of the work's southern-folk roots, something often jeopardized en route to Broadway. The exploitation of rural poverty for cheap labor, xenophobic political ideology, and drug addiction are the heavy backdrop to the show's riotous musical numbers, performed by a stand-out seven-member band on stage. (Hats off, in particular, to trombonist Audrey Ochoa.) The moments when the show invites us to ponder different tomorrows, and to raise our cups to those who sing those visions, are some of the most stirring, and they settled with extra weight on Wednesday night in the encore song "We Raise our Cups":

Some flowers bloom

Where the green grass grows

Our praise is not for them

But the ones who bloom in the bitter snow

We raise our cups to them.


Hadestown runs at the Kimmel Cultural Campus' Academy of Music until February 20. Tickets ($25 - $149) are available online, by phone at 215-893-1999, or at the box office at 240 S Broad St from 10 am to 6 pm daily. Learn more about the venue's Safe & Clean Commitment and vaccination requirements.


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