In an era of jukebox musicals, movie adaptations and star vehicles, Broadway desperately needs some original shows. Enter Hadestown, an exciting new musical based on an ancient story that blends jazz, folk-rolk and blues while taking the audience on an intoxicating theatrical journey. It’s a trip to the underworld, which may sound dreary but has never been this much fun.
Hadestown has been years in the making. It began in 2006 as a touring folk opera in Vermont starring Anais Mitchell, who wrote the music, lyrics and book. In 2010 it became a studio album featuring Ani DiFranco. Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812) developed the musical, directing acclaimed productions at New York Theatre Workshop in 2016 and at London’s National Theatre last fall. Now this unconventional show has made its way to Broadway, and it still feels intimate and intense at the beautiful Walter Kerr Theatre.
The story is based on the Greek myth of Orpheus, who followed his beloved Eurydice into the underworld. In Chavkin’s inventive staging, the setting now resembles New Orleans, and many of Mitchell’s songs bring to mind upbeat New Orleans jazz. Our guide is Hermes (André De Shields), who introduces the other characters in the enticing “Road to Hell.” De Shields looks dapper and immediately snares our attention with his distinctive voice and smooth moves.
Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) is a runaway who quickly captures the heart of Orpheus (Reeve Carney), a poor musician. Their songs – together and apart – are mostly pretty folk-rock tunes, Mitchell’s specialty. The petite Noblezada (who burst on the theater scene in last season’s Miss Saigon) shows off her powerful voice in “Any Way the Wind Blows,” accompanied by the Fates (goddesses who determine the fates of mortals). The Fates are a fierce trio (Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer and Kay Trinidad), who harmonize with panache.
Mitchell’s varied music is captivating, and David Neumann’s choreography accentuates its earthiness. The show climaxes with the gorgeous “Wait for Me,” sung by Carney and his fellow cast members with urgency and passion. Chavkin’s dynamic direction makes the song even more stirring. The set undergoes a stunning transformation, and swinging lights add dramatic effect. As she does throughout the show, Chavkin uses three turntables and an elevator at the center of the circular stage with ingenuity.
After the emotional high point of “Wait for Me,” I expected the intermission to follow. Instead, the first act ends with the dark “Why We Build the Wall,” sung by Hades (Patrick Page), ruler of the underworld. Here Hades is a businessman who owns factories and people. The song about the wall certainly brings to mind contemporary politics and our own businessman president. Page’s voice is at its deepest and most menacing as he embodies Hades’ greed and selfishness.
Hades’ wife and muse is Persephone (Amber Gray). In Greek mythology she’s the goddess of the seasons. In Hadestown she’s a fun-loving, boozy party girl who could dance the night away during Mardi Gras. Her songs, starting with the jubilant “Livin’ It Up on Top,” are infectious jazzy numbers that capture the feel-good spirit of New Orleans.
Mitchell’s score is terrific, ranging from swinging jazz to haunting ballads. It’s a remarkable Broadway debut, and her music may well earn her a Tony Award. The whole cast is wonderful, singing and strutting for a lively two and a half hours. All five leads are outstanding. I would love to see De Shields, still sprightly at age 73, finally win a Tony. His career stretches back to The Wiz and Ain’t Misbehavin’ in the 70s, and he’s just as memorable here as he was in those hits and in The Full Monty.
Hadestown is unlike anything else on Broadway. It’s not typical Broadway fare, but it boasts spirited songs, a dynamite cast, romance and knockout direction by Chavkin. Rachel Hauck’s set is pretty cool too. Simply put, this jazzy trip to hell is theatrical heaven.