Review: HADESTOWN Exceeds the Hype at Benedum Center

The genre-blending alt-folk musical tour takes Pittsburgh by storm.

By: Nov. 20, 2022
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Review: HADESTOWN Exceeds the Hype at Benedum Center
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We're living in an age in which a musical exists tangibly, not just theoretically or ephemerally. Between social media, television appearances, the rise of the proshot and the mainstreaming of bootlegs, no one needs to listen to a cast recording and wonder what the show that connects the dots is like anymore. You can see huge chunks of it, if not the whole thing, at the touch of a button. Purists and naysayers have complained that this ruins the specialness of theatre, but far from it: the rise of new media access has driven people to musical theatre who previously had neither access nor interest, and has pushed Broadway back into mainstream pop culture for the first time since the 1960s. Now that science fiction and comics are the monoculture, musical theatre is the new nerd niche in waiting. Almost no show has thrived and blossomed in this "all eyes on me" atmosphere more than Anaïs Mitchell's folk-opera Hadestown, which has very publicly evolved through a series of readily-available rewrites and incarnations into the brilliant finished product touring today.

After its premiere, many critics described Hadestown as the second coming of Hamilton, mostly for its multigenerational popularity, genre-bending sounds and diverse cast (which has only grown more and more diverse as time goes by). It's actually more accurate to draw a line between Hadestown and RENT, both of which are written in a mix of song and free-form rhyming couplets and concern the power of music to forge bonds that conquer even death. Mitchell's magnum opus is a much more polished and nuanced work than Larson's, but Mitchell had the luxury of a series of revisions and improvements over the course of a life still ongoing. Like Orpheus, she has been constantly and consistently "working on a song."

The story, as staged by director Rachel Chavkin in a post-apocalyptic Dust Bowl of industrial Americana, concerns earnest but eccentric songwriter Orpheus (Chibueze Ihuoma) and his fiancee, the migrant worker Eurydice (Hannah Whitley). The seasons are out of whack, partially due to some unspoken but implied environmental disaster and partially due to the erratic presence of Persephone (Lana Gordon), the life-giving goddess who splits her time between the world and the underground Hadestown, domain of death god and industrialist populist Hades (Matthew Patrick Quinn). Orpheus labors over his quest to write a song good enough to reset the balance of nature, and in the process loses starving Eurydice to the promise of security and food in Hadestown. Thus begins his epic saga to win her back, and maybe start a revolution at the same time, sometimes aided and sometimes opposed by the mercurial narrator figure Hermes (Nathan Lee Graham).

There are times, and I'm surely not the only one to say so, when the magic-realist conceits of the show clash against its more realistic presentational impulses. I'm inclined to think much of this ambiguity is intentional, as it blurs the line between metaphor and total reimagining: is Hadestown in this telling a hellish underworld of life after death, or is it a fascist enclave south of the border (whichever border the story takes place north of)? Is Eurydice dead, or a wage slave? While it's tempting to say "yes, all of the above," I think that simplifies things more than Mitchell and Chavkin intended. This is a magic-realist piece where you're supposed to wonder about things that aren't spelled out. There are obvious sociopolitical resonances, but this isn't Narnia or Urinetown, a cut-and-dried allegory. It's just what it is, a myth, a folktale.

As is usual for national tours, the cast is excellent, split about evenly between performers breaking the mold of their predecessors and performers clearly existing in the shadow thereof. Chibueze Ihuoma plays a gentler, simpler Orpheus, leaning into the implication that Orpheus may be neurodivergent and not just a creative airhead. He sings more of the show in his own voice and his soulful falsetto, rather than the intentional (and symbolic) imitation of Jeff Buckley which Reeve Carney affected on Broadway for much of the show. His counterpart, Hannah Whitley, goes in the oppoiste direction, creating a tougher and more weathered and world-weary Eurydice in comparison to Eva Noblezada. Her acoustic ballad "Flowers" in Act 2 often feels like a lament, while here Whitley makes it a suppressed scream of frustration. Nathan Lee Graham lands right in the middle with his pitch-perfect Goldilocks of a "just right" performance as Hermes. Funny, flamboyant and a little sinister, like a drag-show version of a Baptist preacher, Graham leers, minces and struts his way through the show much like the Grand Duke of theatrical archness, Andre De Shields.

Matthew Patrick Quinn's Hades feels the most removed from his predecessor. Tall, lanky and rubber-limbed, he's a younger, looser Hades than the impenetrable brick wall played so memorably by Patrick Page. There's a sense of malicious fun in Quinn, who seems to revel in "the art of the deal;" sometimes it runs contrary to the implications that Hades feels nothing at all to avoid feeling hurt, but it lends a weird, devilish glee to much of Hades's machinations in Act 2. Lana Gordon's fun-loving Persephone, ever the life of the party, feels less like an odd couple and more like a soulmate to Hades; whenever she takes center stage for a jazzy musical number and some of David Neumann's delightfully awkward and ungainly choreography, you can almost feel spring returning. She's less of a chaotic hot mess than Amber Grey portrayed in her original Persephone; this goddess may have a problem, but she doesn't have a pronounced drinking problem.

Why have I spent so much time in this review talking about previous performers, and about new media or bootleg culture? Because it's working. Theatre is slowly going the way of concerts and accepting that social media, bootlegging or at least active audience engagement with the material will NOT kill the art form off. Instead, look at the crowds at this Pittsburgh tour of a musical with no famous cast members, no famous writer, and not based on a well-known pop cultural source material: people are excited. People are bragging that they got to see it. People are sharing their reactions online like it's 2016 and they just got to see Hamilton. Theatremakers worldwide, I hope you're taking notice of this, and taking notice of the insane run on Taylor Swift tickets as well: the gathering of people together to make art is special, but it's not more special than the art itself. Theatre is a church service that can be accessible to all, not a Masonic ritual to be performed behind closed doors for the enlightened, the connected and the wealthy. And providing access to what's inside somehow only makes the collection plate fuller. I raise my cup to that.


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