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The new folk opera by Anais Mitchell at the New York Theatre Workshop is a retelling of the ancient Greek tale about Orpheus and Eurydice. But don’t be fooled. The real romantic sparks in Hadestown are generated by the love affair between Hades, the Lord of the Underworld, and his wife Persephone. How could that not be the case, considering they’re played by the sublimely menacing Patrick Page and the gorgeous-voiced Amber Gray?
The music is the thing in this show adapted from Mitchell’s critically acclaimed concept album, released in 2010 and featuring the voices of not only its composer but also such guest stars as Ani DiFranco, the Haden triplets and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. The material has been given an enthralling environmental staging by Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812), which should draw hordes of younger theatergoers to the venue that recently enjoyed a sell-out smash with the David Bowie musical Lazarus.
The theater has been dramatically reconfigured for this production, transformed into a wooden amphitheater with the audience seated on mismatched wooden chairs (cushions are thoughtfully provided) on three sides of the circular stage. Rachel Hauck’s scenery consists largely of a giant, gnarly tree at the back, ominously looming over the action.
The tale is familiar thanks to myriad film, theater, music and dance adaptations, including, of course, Gluck’s oft-performed 1762 opera. Orpheus (Damon Daunno), a young poet/musician, or in this case, cute singer/songwriter, must descend into the underworld to rescue his beautiful wife Eurydice (Nabiyah Be) from the clutches of Hades (Page). The proceedings are narrated by Hermes (Chris Sullivan), here seen as a rakish hipster, with the three Fates, played by Lulu Fall, Jessie Shelton and Shaina Taub, serving as a musical Greek chorus. It’s all accompanied by a seven-piece band whose members, befitting the concert-style nature of the show, are introduced to the audience. And spoiler alert: The story doesn’t end happily.
Entirely sung-through, the evening consists of nearly three dozen songs featuring a wide variety of musical genres, the most infectiously enjoyable of them being New Orleans-style jazz. Energetically sung by the powerful-voiced ensemble, the music is terrific — endlessly inventive and eclectic, as melodic as it is funky and folksy.
The action is set in an industrial underworld society beset by class differences and economic injustice, lorded over by robber baron Hades who, in one of the score’s most powerful songs, informs us “Why We Build the Wall.” (The music predates Trump’s political campaign, but feel free to draw the appropriate parallels.)
Truth be told, the familiar story seems attenuated and thin over the course of an evening running more than two hours. The lyrics aren’t as scintillating as the music, and the action, which spills out into the walkways winding through the audience, feels overly busy at times. The dialogue, as little of it as there is, can be wince-inducing.
“Are you always this confident?” Eurydice asks Orpheus upon their first meeting.
“When I look at you, I am,” he replies. Just in case we didn’t get it, the exchange is repeated later on.
But it hardly matters, thanks to the music’s relentless energy and inventiveness as delivered by the crack band and terrific ensemble. Daunno and Be are sexy and sweet as the ill-fated young lovers; Sullivan’s charismatic, gravelly voiced Hermes resembles a young Dr. John; Gray makes for a lustrous Persephone; the impossibly deep, bass-voiced Page, wearing a black suit and sunglasses, is deliciously sinister as Hades; and the talented trio of Fall, Shelton and Taub play instruments as well as sing. All together, they make Hadestown an unlikely desirable destination.
Venue: New York Theatre Workshop, New York
Cast: Nabiyah Be, Damon Daunno, Lulu Fall, Amber Gray, Patrick Page, Jessie Shelton, Chris Sullivan, Shaina Taub
Music: Anais Mitchell
Director: Rachel Chavkin
Set designer: Rachel Hauck
Costume designer: Michael Krass
Lighting designer: Bradley King
Sound designer: Robert Kaplowitz
Choreographer: David Neumann
Presented by New York Theatre Workshop
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