“Hadestown” In and Out of Its Depths

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Hadestown has come a long way. When I first wrote about it (in program notes for Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series back in 2016), Hadestown was a concept album that its composer, singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, was about to perform parts of in concert at the Stanley H. Kaplan Playhouse, prior to the piece’s premiere in April at New York Theatre Workshop. Hadestown was Mitchell’s contemporary retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus, Eurydice and their journey through Hell. I found it terrific musically. I also thought Mitchell’s songs, in many instances, lacked a feel for dramatizing character or emotions theatrically. Her ensuing Songbook concert confirmed these flaws to me. It was, nonetheless, a lot of fun.

Hadestown has since received productions in Canada and at London’s National Theatre. It has now opened on Broadway, in an elborately conceptualized staging by director Rachel Chavkin; contemporary Broadway’s most elaborately conceptual stager.

You know what? I still think the songs lack fundamental dramatic impulses. This is unfortunate but perhaps inescapable. Despite Ms. Chavkin’s best efforts to paint over the dramaturgic  weaknesses in Ms. Mitchell’s very appealing music, the often meandering folk-driven trajectory of her songs cannot be tarted up. They are what they are: reflective, often reflexive, at times repetitive and somewhat didactic.

Hadestown looks great, though it does bear a darker-hued resemblance physically to the stacked, concentric tower-like dimensions of the set for Ms. Chavkin’s previous Broadway outing: Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. We’ve been here before, I found myself thinking, but with much brighter lighting. Also a more theatrically sophisticated score (by Dave Malloy).

I adored the work of all the leading grownups in Hadestown: André De Shields as Hermes, Amber Gray as Persephone and Patrick Page as Hades. They are each in their own way sublime, bringing to bear the weight and wisdom of their respective theatrical years in delivering the blues-drenched sagacity imparted to their respective characters; De Shields with a kind of regal resignation; Gray with a disoluteness that ennobles; and Page as the embodiment of evil as power.

It’s the young principals in Hadestown who give me pause. Chavkin clearly has directed Reeve Carney as Orpheus and Eva Noblezada as Eurydice to play it wide-eyed and largely innocent. The pair, however, seem never to connect. They barely look at each other onstage. Their songs of devotion seem generally directed to the heavens, or the audience, rather than each other. I’m sure there is a conceptual case to be made for these choices but they elude me. Whatever the drama seems to demand from their characters, the actors seem to have been directed to resist. Where Orpheus, as we know, in the end does look back at Eurydice, as they attempt to escape Hell together, Mr. Carney never really gives Ms. Neblezada a glance. When the moment comes for Orpheus to grab Eurydice and just run, Orpheus turns upstage, raises his eyes heavenward and sweetly sings. It was kind of infuriating.

I also have a question and I know it’s importunate. Still: The blues is Hadestown’s heart and soul, musically. And Orpheus is essentially Hadestown’s musical voice. The show has been cast with a rich multicultural mix.

So why is Orpheus played by a white kid?

I’m just asking.

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