Review: HADESTOWN at National Theatre

Anaïs Mitchell's popular trip to the underworld returns

By: Jun. 08, 2023
Review: HADESTOWN at National Theatre

When the cast of “Hadestown” emerge on stage at The National Theatre waving to the waiting audience, they’re received with cheers like old friends. 

After all, the standout musical by Anaïs Mitchell, a winner of eight Tony Awards in 2019 including best musical, best score, best director and set design, had reached its 1,000th performance on Broadway earlier this year and begun its first national tour at the Kennedy Center two years ago — delayed for a year due to the pandemic.

The unique adaptation of Greek myths was therefore well-known enough for individual characters to get their own cheers when entering, but no so much that the rapt audience would break into sing-along.

Ostensibly a take on the doomed story of Orpheus and Eurydice, it’s set in a kind of multi-level way station in the underworld where Eurydice finds herself, eventually falls in love with Orpheus, but agrees to become a worker in the labor camps run by Hades and his more worldly wife Persephone. The agreement for the younger couple being allowed to leave  — he leads but can’t look back at her — makes for the tension for the the show’s end.

A New England singer and songwriter, Mitchell had been crafting her work for more than a decade before it made its Off-Broadway premiere, including a 2010 concept album with Ani DeFranco, Greg Brown and the Haden Triplets. 

And while the piece changed and added music on its way to the Great White Way, it never lost its homegrown and heartfelt roots. This is due in part to the talented band that’s on stage for the entirety of the show (except for the drummer working offstage). But mostly it's because of Mitchell’s direct lyrics and tuneful approach, which came from a decade of presenting and reworking the pieces in early New England tours. It’s far from the slick, snappy and often emptier typical songs of the Broadway musical.

Combining her folk backing with a kind of New Orleans sass that makes for some big moments — from the introductory “Road to Hell” from Hermes (portrayed by the elegant Nathan Lee Graham) to her own act-opening “Our Lady of the Underground” from Persephone (a lively Maria-Christina Oliveras).

Many of the current national touring cast are fresh faces, from the distinctive Hannah Whitley as Eurydice — all big eyes and a bigger voice — and J. Antonio Rodriguez as Orpheus, with a sweet falsetto and simple electric guitar style that recalls Ritchie Valens (he does have a regional “Buddy Holly Story” among his credits).

Matthew Patrick Quinn is a standout as Hermes, in part because his voice is several octaves lower than anyone else on stage. Following the lead of Patrick Page, who originated the role off-Broadway and on (and was just in D.C. as “King Lear”), Quinn has some experience in this area, having, according to his bio, “originated several villainous roles for Disney Cruise Line such as Scar, Jafar and Captain Hook.” 

Just one of the three soulful “Fates” are from an earlier tour — Belén Moyano, who with Dominique Kempf and Nyla Watson. provide a backup of advisors that sound right out of the Pointer Sisters.

The versatile set of workers fill a lot of the dancing and vocal backups.

Mitchell says she was inspired in part by “Les Misreables,” and it shows, particularly in the worker uprisings of act two. But its focus on the pair of love stories softens any stridency. 

One reason “Hadestown” stands out among recent musicals is that it was created largely by women. In addition to Mitchell — who did the book, music and lyrics — it was Rachel Chavkin who helped make it a magical stage piece, with a multi-level set from Rachel Hauck that made great use of a turntable floor that in turn aided David Neumann’s choreography. The vaguely French Quarter setting makes sense for both the music and the vibe. 

There are some standouts in the band such that they deserve the rare mid-show introductions they receive. Among them are the soulful guitar of Michiko Egger; Emily Fredrickson’s trombone and the conducting of pianist Eric Kang who can crystallize a moment with a single, emphatic key-strike. 

If there are lapses in the story — does Eurydice fall a little too quickly for Orpheus? — it may still be because of the original mythology. But the music is at times so strong it seems prolific — the knockout “Why We Build the Wall,” after all, predated the 2016 election and provided an instant protest. And the dire “Any Way the Wind Blows” could have come out of the day's Condition Red air quality: “Weather ain’t the way it was before / Ain’t no spring or fall at all anymore / It’s either blazing hot or freezing cold..”

Ovations at the end of "Hadestown" are by now so expected, they’ve worked in a regular post-bow song, “We Raise Our Cups” -- which sounds so much more natural sung free from microphones than the sometimes tinny and over-amplified rest of the show at the nation’s oldest theatre. 

They take time to fill the cups before they toast each night, and I’m suspecting the wine is just as real as the songs.

Photo credit: Belén Moyano, J. Antonio Rodriguez, Hannah Whitley, Nyla Watson and Dominique Kempf in “Hadestown,” North American Tour 2023. Photo by T. Charles Erikson.

Running time: Two hours, 30 minutes with one intermission. 

“Hadestown” continues through June 18 at The National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Recommended for ages 8 and up. Tickets available online.




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