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BWW Review: HADESTOWN at Kennedy Center

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An aural feast which presents us with hard questions.

BWW Review: HADESTOWN at Kennedy Center
The company of the North American Tour of Hadestown.
Photo by T Charles Erickson.

It is mere coincidence that Anaïs Mitchell's remarkable, Tony Award-winning Hadestown, now being given a solid production at the Kennedy Center's Opera House, debuted on Broadway just before our twenty-month plague began, but it fits. Mitchell's story is at bottom a moral call to arms, which cleverly mines the saddest tale in all of mythology and marries it to a still older myth - one which was designed to explain the seasons.

And there's music - lots and lots of music.

The sad tale is the story of Orpheus, the great musician, and Eurydice, his much-loved bride. Eurydice dies on her wedding day, and the heartbroken Orpheus follows her into the underworld, determined to charm hell's demons with his music and bring her back. The older myth is the one of Persephone, the daughter of Zeus who was abducted by Hades, Lord of the Underworld. She reaches a bargain with her captor which allows her to return to the surface world for part of the year. When she is in Hades, it is winter. When she comes above ground, it turns to spring.

In Mitchell's iteration, the Earth has become blighted because Hades (Kevyn Morrow) permits Persephone (Kimberly Marable) less and less time on the surface world. Eurydice (Morgan Siobhan Green), a woman bathed in trial and glazed with cynicism, wanders into a train station and, buffeted by the Fates (Belén Moyano, Bex Odorisio, and Shea Renne), tries to light a candle for warmth and light. Orpheus (Nicholas Barasch), a poet and musician of great promise but no net worth, sees her and immediately resolves to make her his wife.

It is a hard sell. Eurydice is prepared to think the worst of him. (When he tells her he plays the lyre, she concludes that he is a player and a liar - a familiar sort for her). But when she learns that he is working on a song which will bring back the spring - Persephone or no Persephone - her attitude changes. She moves in with him, and helps him to secure food and firewood against the gathering storm.

But where people are cold and hungry above the ground, they are warm indeed in Hadestown, and their bellies are full. Hades has created a great industrial machine, including factories and warehouses, and his great project is to build a wall to keep the poor out. All you need in order to win the comfort of Hadestown is to forget who you are, and give yourself over to soul-sucking labor.

As Mitchell tells it, it is the surface world's privation - and not the accident of death - which drives Eurydice to make a devil's bargain, and punch her ticket to Hadestown. As she later explains to Orpheus, her heart told her to stay with him, but her gut - and its need to be fed - drew her to Hadestown.

You could read this as a screed against capitalism, but Mitchell is more subtle and more thoughtful. The surface world is destitute and in disarray, and Hadestown is safe and prosperous. Orpheus' composition represents the artist's desire to make the world anew, safe and without pain, but it remains unfinished.

At first glance, Hades' wall project will remind you of Trump, but Hadestown was in production while Trump was still a game-show host. Mitchell is after bigger game. Hadestown is the emblem for our frightened avarice, which made it possible for Trump to come to power. "Why do we build the wall?" Hades asks, and his feckless citizens stop their work long enough to explain that it is to keep outsiders away: "Because we have and they have not/Because they want what we have got/The enemy is poverty/And the wall keeps out the enemy/And we build the wall to keep us free/That's why we build the wall/We build the wall to keep us free." The fault lies not in the stars but in our selves.

This is an exceptionally ambitious work, not only conceptually but musically as well. The predominant motif seems to be New Orleans jazz, but it slides into contemporary rock and even occasional rap as well. The spirit of the great Steve Winwood hangs over the beautiful "Wedding Song", and there are bits which recall Michael John LaChuisa. Notwithstanding, the music - this is nearly a sung-through musical - is fresh and original throughout, with surprising hooks and delightful variations. The seven-artist orchestra sits on the stage - more on that later - and is punctuated by Audrey Ochoa's wild trombone.

Even though ancient myths set the broad outlines of this story, Mitchell wisely lets events flow from character. This necessarily requires characters of great complexity, and by and large the cast - particularly Morrow as Hades, Marable as Persephone, and Green as Eurydice - carry it off. Morrow, whose musical basso profundo is the polar opposite of Barasch's high tenor, could have made Hades a cartoon villain, but does not. Patrick Page, who originated the role on Broadway, opined that Hades was primarily a husband, whose great fear was that without his money and power he would lose Persephone. Morrow manages to edge that anxiety into the character of Hades, who is otherwise an icon of arrogance and power.

Persephone and Eurydice are opposite sides of the same coin, and Marable and Green make that clear, both in how they are different and how they are the same. They are both women who treasure love - love as the opposite of the indifference which prevails in Hadestown. But Persephone is the daughter of a god, and Marable radiates the self-confidence of someone who is sure of her position. This is particularly clear in "Our Lady of the Underground," a call-and-response number which opens the second Act. When she introduces the onstage band, concert-style - each artist, by name - it's obvious she believes that they are singing for her.

Green's Eurydice, on the other hand, wears her impoverishment like a cloak. She is feisty and strong, but her expectations, and her choices, are all informed by the misery which has been her life. She is surrounded by the Fates, which counsel despair in gorgeous close harmony. (The work of Moyano, Odorisio and Renne is terrific throughout). Green, whose diminutive stature and dark-ringed eyes accentuate her character's dilemma and make her even more sympathetic, gets the role in all its complexity.

Orpheus is a less complex role, but it still has obligations. Barasch's high, sweet tenor - which slips into falsetto on occasion - captures the character's innocence, idealism and naivete, and he is convincing as a man in love. Indeed, it is this same idealism and naivete which sells Barasch's Orpheus as a man who could fall in love simply by gazing at a face across the room. But later, after Orpheus makes it to Hadestown, he vows to lead not only Eurydice but a whole chorus of downtrodden workers back to the surface world. Barasch is less convincing as a working-class hero.

A word about this chorus (Lindsey Hailes, Chibueze Ihuoma, Will Mann, Sydney Parra and Jamari Johnson Williams): it's excellent. In addition to singing, which they do beautifully, they also flood the stage with beautifully choreographed movement (David Neumann is the choreographer; Kimberly Immanuel is the dance captain). They are wonderfully specific in their steps, and each dancer shows a different personality. Hailes is as agile and supple as a wraith, and you can imagine that she has already dropped her body, and is now in the spiritual realm. Mann, a gentleman of size, uses very compact movements, and thus suggests a very special menace, particularly in a scene in which Hades' minions, at his special behest, beat up Orpheus. But the extraordinary beauty of the choreography is best seen in a moment of stillness: when the chorus becomes a slab of bodies, worn down by the relentless demands of the Hadestown machine.

Not everything works. Mitchell elects to have Hermes (Levi Kreis), the god of messengers (and of thieves) serve as a narrator and sort of master of ceremonies. Kreis works hard to engage the audience - and sometimes succeeds - but employing a narrator to provide exposition is unnecessary in a story which is otherwise so strong. In the call-and-response song which opens the show - "Road to Hell" - Hermes introduces the characters, but it is unnecessary to do so; the characters introduce themselves, more clearly and vividly, in the text. Similarly, Hermes is frequently called upon to explain what we are about to see, when we could just as easily simply see it. The story is strong enough that a narrator, however charming, seems superfluous.

And let me string together five words I never thought I'd see in a single sentence: the Opera House's stage seems cluttered. Of course, the availability of space on the capacious stage is limited by the needs of the touring production: it must use the same set regardless of venue or else re-block the entire production, and many of the places the tour will go have much smaller stages. But the small set means that there is no visual differentiation between the surface world and Hadestown, and notwithstanding the exquisite precision of the choreography, a small stage with seven musicians and as many as seventeen actors is an invitation to distraction.

These quibbles aside, Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin, who helped develop the piece, have done a wonderful thing: created an aural feast which presents us with hard questions. Those of you who know how the story of Orpheus and Eurydice ends will know how this one ends too, but your heart will still break. If the story seems incomplete, it is because it is still winter here on the surface world. Get to work, poets and singers.

Running Time: Two hours thirty minutes, including one intermission

Hadestown performs thru October 31, 2021 in the Opera House of The Kennedy Center. Tickets available here.

Hadestown, by Anaïs Mitchell, directed by Rachel Chavkin, who assisted in its development. Musical direction by Cody Owen Stine, who also played the piano. Choreography by David Neumann. Featuring Nicholas Barasch, Morgan Siobhan Green, Kimberly Marable, Kevyn Morrow, Levi Kreis, Belén Moyano, Bex Odorisio, Shea Renne, Lindsey Hailes, Chibueze Ihuoma, Will Mann, Syndey Parra, Jamari Johnson Williams, Kimberley Immanuel (who serves as dance captain) Alex Lugo, Eddie Noel Rodríguez, and Nathan Salstone. Orchestra: Stine, Ko Sugihama on violin, Jacob Yates on Cello, Michiko Egger on guitar, Audrey Ochoa on trombone and glockenspiel, Calvin Jones on double bass, and Anthony Johnson on drums and percussion. Scenic design by Rachel Hauck. Costume design by Michael Krass. Lighting design by Bradley King. Sound design by Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz. Hair design by Jennifer Mullins. Musical supervision and vocal arrangements by Liam Robinson. Arrangements and Orchestration by Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose. David Lai is the music coordinator. Casting is done by Stewart/Whitley. The Booking Group is the tour booking agency. Tour marketing and press is done by Allied Global Marketing, and the national press representative is DKC/O&M. Marathon Digital does social media. Realemn Productions is the diversity marketing consultant. Ken Cerniglia is the dramaturg. General management by RCI Theatricals; Denny Daniello is the company manager. Paige Grant is the production stage manager.


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