by Jordan Cohen
In 2010, Anaïs Mitchell, who has been called the “queen of modern folk music,” gained critical acclaim for the release of Hadestown, a folk opera concept album based on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Six years later, Ms. Mitchell, in collaboration with the ever-versatile director Rachel Chavkin, has developed her album into a touching, full-fledged piece of musical theatre now having its world premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop.
As they did with last season’s Scenes from a Marriage, the NYTW has transformed its space from a traditional proscenium, this time to an arena style stage, injecting the experience with a sense of intimacy while nodding to the classical roots of the tale. A seven-piece band occupies the upstage portion of the playing area, and a tree, its bare branches twisting above the stage, looms over the action. The cast makes excellent use of the space, playing scenes and observing the action from all corners of the house.
The plot is simple and largely true to the original myth: Orpheus (Damon Daunno) and Eurydice (Nabiyah Be) meet, and after some wooing, they fall in love. But it’s not long before Hades (Patrick Page) lures Eurydice, who’s grown tired of the simplicity of earthly offerings, to the underworld. It dawns on Eurydice, however, that Hades is nothing like she imagined. Instead of endless pleasure and freedom, she discovers a city ruled with the fervor of a dictator and that she has unwittingly agreed to remain below forever.
Orpheus makes the grueling journey to the underworld to rescue his love and convinces Hades, through song (and some nudging by his wife, Persephone, played brilliantly by Amber Gray), to allow her to leave with him. But there’s one condition: Orpheus must walk in front and never turn to see if Eurydice remains behind him. It’s a test of trust and, as it turns out, one of the most heartbreaking stories of the classical canon.
Spoken dialogue and recitative are sprinkled throughout the production, but the major storytelling is done through song. Thankfully, the score is gorgeous and varied and the orchestrations, by Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose, are fabulously rich. Foot stomping production numbers counter wistful folk ballads and each member of the cast brings emotional complexity and unique singing styles to their roles. At times, I wished the production had staged elements that were simply reported on in the script, like when Orpheus tells Eurydice he convinced the wall barricading the city to let him enter by singing it a song. Ms. Chavkin surely would have been up to the challenge.
Mr. Daunno and Ms. Be, as the fateful pair, have genuine chemistry and play their roles with proper charm and naiveté, but it’s the supporting cast that makes the strongest impact in the production. As Hades, Mr. Page brings his signature menace and ocean-deep bass to a role he was born to play. In “Hey, Little Songbird,” he barely needs to move a finger to communicate the power he possesses over unsuspecting souls. And in “Why We Build the Wall,” a song written for the original album but with eerie resonance in 2016, Mr. Page leads the cast in a kind of call and response that sent shivers down my spine (“Why do we build a wall?”/”We build a wall to keep up free… The wall keeps out the enemy”). As Persephone, Ms. Gray is world-weary and deeply human. She makes the most of her time on Earth (she spends half the year above and half the year below), singing the celebratory “Living it Up on Top,” but when Hades arrives to bring her to the underworld, the gloom, always deep inside, returns to the surface. She opens the second act with the rousing “Our Lady of the Underground,” one of the most delighting numbers of the evening. The excellent Chris Sullivan, who as Hermes narrates the action with a centuries-old knowing, and Lulu Fall, Jessie Shelton, and Shaina Taub, as the trio of Fates, round out the cast.
Rachel Hauck’s scenery is spare, which allows for fluid staging, and Michael Krass’s costumes are largely contemporary yet feel timeless. Bradley King’s lighting contributes perfectly to the mood of each scene and Robert Kaplowitz’s sound design compliments the already lush aural landscape provided by the instruments and voices.
Hadestown. Through July at New York Theatre Workshop (83 East 4th Street, between Second Avenue and The Bowery). www.nytw.org
Photos: Joan Marcus