Stage Door Review 2023


Wednesday, July 12, 2023


music, lyrics and book by Anaïs Mitchell, directed by Rachel Chavkin

David Mirvish, Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto

July 7-August 20, 2023;

CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre, Toronto

May 15-26, 2024

Hermes: “It’s an old song
It’s an old tale from way back when
It’s an old song
But we’re gonna sing it again”

At the 2019 Tony Awards Hadestown was nominated in fourteen categories and won in eight including Best Musical, Best Score and Best Direction of a musical. The Tonys make categorize Hadestown as a “Broadway musical” but it is totally different from much of was passes as Broadway musicals today. It is not based on a movie and it is neither a jukebox nor a back-catalogue musical. Instead, creator Anaïs Mitchell has based Hadestown on Greek mythology and has written music that fuses folk with New Orleans jazz in an unusually rich style completely different from that of any other musical now playing. There is so little spoken dialogue that Mitchell is right in calling it a “folk opera”. It’s a gorgeous score written with intelligence and passion. No lover of music theatre of any kind should miss it.

Mitchell’s brilliant idea, first formulated in 2006, was to combine two tangentially related Greek myths and to set the action in Depression-era America. One myth is that of Hades and Persephone. The other is that of Orpheus and Eurydice. The two myths are linked in that both feature the descent into the Underworld by the female character. In the first of the two, Hades is the ruler of the Underworld and Persephone will be his queen. In the second Orpheus tries to rescue Euridice from the Underworld but needs Hades’s permission to do so.

The musical begins with the character Hermes introducing the characters, the band and the chorus. He tells us they are going to tell us an “old tale from way back when / It’s an old song / But we’re gonna sing it again”. Why are they going to sing this old song again? It’s because it is one of the most fundamental myth about art in European mythology. The music Orpheus makes is so beautiful it has the power literally to move mountains. The myth is a celebration of the power of music and portrait of the isolation of the artist. That is why more than 70 operas have been written on the subject by composers such as Monteverdi (1607), Telemann (1726), Gluck (1762), Haydn (1791), Offenbach (1858), Philip Glass (1993) and Matthew Aucoin (2020). Opera Atelier will be presenting Gluck’s 1774 version in October later this year. Mitchell’s “folk opera” is such a serious examination of the implications of the myth that her work belongs in this exalted company.

In Greek mythology the Underworld (called Hadestown in Mitchell) is where all the souls of human beings go when they die and is ruled by Hades (known as Pluto in Roman mythology), brother of the gods Zeus and Poseidon. Only the very rare mortal goes to Mount Olympus, the heaven of Greek myth, where the gods live. Hades had ages ago abducted the maiden Persephone, daughter of Demeter, goddess of the harvest, while she was picking flowers. In anger, Demeter causes famine to ravage the earth. To resolve the problem Zeus sent Hermes (Mercury in Roman myth) to bargain with Hades. The solution is that six months of the year Persephone will spend above ground with her mother during which time it will be spring and summer on Earth. The other six she will spend with Hades during which time it will be fall and winter.

While Mitchell has not altered the Hades and Persephone myth, she has significantly altered the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. In Greek myth Orpheus is the son of Apollo, the greatest of all musicians, and Eurydice is a nymph. In Mitchell, both characters are ordinary humans. Orpheus is a naïve young man and songwriter whose lyre is an electric guitar. Eurydice, far from being a nymph, is an unhappy young woman who is hungry and cold from living on the streets.

In Greek myth Eurydice dies by stepping on a viper when fleeing a would-be rapist. In Mitchell, Euridice chooses to live and work in Hades because she will at least have food and shelter and signs a contract with the god Hades to that effect. Orpheus descends into the Underworld to bring Eurydice back. As in Greek myth, Hades agrees to consider releasing Eurydice if Orpheus can sing the most beautiful song ever written. As in Greek myth, Hades releases Eurydice under one condition. Will Orpheus be able to fulfil this condition? Previous stage versions of this myth have had happy and sad conclusions. Mitchell keeps us in an almost unbearable suspense as to the outcome until the very end.

Mitchell has so cleverly written the musical that it is not necessary to know all the Greek mythology that underlies the story. Yet, the more you know of Greek Mythology the more you will appreciate how brilliantly Mitchell has found real world equivalents for what is fantastic or magical in the myth.

Hades or the Underworld in Greek mythology is thought to be in a huge vault under the ground reached via the volcanic crater of Avernus. Mitchell reimagines this world as an underground mining town. Hades is the boss and owner of this company town and the souls of the dead are pictured as his slave labourers. In Greek myth the dead have to cross the river Lethe to forget their previous life. Here, Mitchell brilliantly has the workers tell a newly arrived Eurydice that their work is so mind-numbing that they soon forget who they were and even what they were called.

Rachel Hauck’s grim scenic design has to depict both the upper world and the Underworld. She shows a New Orleans-style balcony where Hades and Persephone luxuriate overlooking a circular plaza or working space that features a donut revolve. To each side are three members each of the seven-member band, the percussionist, unfortunately, is hidden behind the set.

It is almost entirely Bradley King’s complex lighting of Hauck’s set that tells us whether we are above or below ground at any one time, though one feature of Hauck’s set ensures us where we are. Hidden beneath the balcony are the horizontal doors of a freight elevator that one might see in a mine with doors that open and closes like jaws. When the interior of the elevator is lit in red we know we are in Hadestown.

Mitchell has written a splendid non-Broadway-like score often described as a blend of folk and New Orleans jazz. In fact, Mitchell’s music revives the kind of sounds heard in popular tunes from the 1920s into the early 1940s. She reproduced early jazz and blues, chain-gang songs, call-and-response, close-harmony trios, honky-tonk, bebop, early swing and more, thus creating a score rife with period references but at the same time, through unexpected shifts in rhythm and chord progressions, sounding completely new. Michael Chorney has is exquisitely orchestrated the score for the band and lent it supernatural tinges, often through the mysterious sounds of the glockenspiel. Mitchell allows the band to shine in several instrumental sections, and Chorney gives every member a standout solo, those for Emily Frederickson on trombone being especially remarkable.

There are only five principal singers but not all of them favour a vocal production that suits Mitchell’s music. The most surprising of these is Nathan Lee Graham as Hermes, our narrator and guide through the strange world of the musical. For the opening number “Road to Hell”, Graham uses a piercingly nasal tone that is probably meant to be nasty or bitingly satiric but comes across simply as annoying. What is so strange is that Graham deliberately adopts this tone. For his spoken narration and for singing outside of his main numbers, he uses a full, rounded tone very easy on the ear. André De Shields uses an open tone in all his singing on the Original Broadway Cast Album, so it’s a mystery why Graham should choose an off-putting sound.

Otherwise, Graham is perfect for the role. His feline Hermes has an ironic view of the story, almost bored from having told it so many times before. Yet, at the end, Graham drops this attitude and makes Hermes the one who helps us come to terms with what has happened.

A more major difficulty is posed by the Eurydice of Hannah Whitley, whose natural means of vocal production is piercingly nasal. Whitley also has acquired the habit of breaking her voice to give the effect of a sob or of increased emotion. In opera this is called singing piangendo, and it is an effect whose overuse becomes an affectation. That’s exactly what happens when Whitley sings every song in this manner. She looks perfect as stray, gamin-like waif, but her pinched tone and vocal affectations prevent us from empathizing with Eurydice as we should. One need only compare Whitley with Eva Noblezada in the Broadway Cast Album to see how a more open voice better brings out the beauty of Mitchell’s songs.

As Persephone, Maria-Christina Oliveras also has a tendency toward a pinched tone, especially when she puts her voice under pressure. Luckily, she avoids that pitfall most of the time. In Persephone’s reconciliation duet with Hades, “How Long?”, we hear how rich her mezzo-soprano really is. Overall, her vocal performance is much more attractive than is Amber Gray’s on the Broadway Cast Album.

The two singers who make the strongest impression are J. Antonio Rodriguez as Orpheus and Matthew Patrick Quinn as Hades. Quinn’s height makes him tower over the other performers as befits the brother of Zeus and Poseidon. His uncompromisingly stern demeanour as well that the blaze of grey in his black pompadour increase the domineering impression. But it is ultimately his powerful, cavernous bass voice that really sets him apart from all the others. Quinn has Hades exude an uncomfortable blend of suavity and cruelty. The highpoint of his performance comes with the song "Why We Build the Wall". Quinn punches home the prescient lyrics to Hades’s propaganda, “The enemy is poverty / And the wall keeps out the enemy / And we build the wall to keep us free”. Many people will assume that Hades’s obsession with a wall is a reference to the project of the previous US president. In fact, the song was part of the early 2006 production in Vermont. We can only say that the song rings out even more frighteningly now than it did in 2006 or on Broadway in 2018.

Rodriguez is really an ideal Orpheus. As Mitchell has conceived him, Orpheus is not the wan, asthenic youth so often depicted in paintings. Rather he is an ordinary guy, an innocent not particularly bright or witty, with an extraordinary gift. Rodriguez embodies all this and makes it work. He is a fine actor and knows that Orpheus’s behaviour can sometimes appear amusing to others even if Orpheus doesn’t understand why. Rodriguez also is the one character whose character grows in the course of the musical. Rodriguez shows that once Orpheus sees the conditions of working life in Hadestown he is motivated by his natural revulsion against evil to foment a rebellion of the workers against Hades.

Rodriguez’ own special gift is his lovely high tenor and even higher falsetto. This purity of sound suits the character and comes as a welcome reprieve from the some of the more unpleasant sounds produced by his castmates. Orpheus’ song sung to move the implacable Hades is the most cherishable of the score and Rodriguez gives it such a beautiful rendition that it is quite believable that Hades should be overcome by it. The simple refrain as sung by Rodriguez is still echoing in my mind days later.

One of Mitchell’s many inspired ideas is the inclusion of the three Fates in the story – played with precisely coordinated movements by Dominique Kempf, Belén Moyano and Nyla Watson. Designer Michael Krass has dressed them in 1930s-style apparel of a matching cement-grey with individualized hats of the same grey and the same period. They are the show’s second chorus after the five dancer-singers who make up the main chorus of denizens of Hadestown. Their distinguishing feature vocally is that they always sing in close harmony like the well-known sister acts of the 1920s-’40s, sounding deliciously like the Andrews Sisters, who had hit tunes from 1937 to 1945. Hermes may tell the story of Orpheus and Eurydice but the Fates represent a power beyond Hermes that shapes the story he relates.

Hadestown is written and composed with a thoughtfulness and skill far beyond that usually found in recent Broadway musicals. It demonstrates that real talent and inspiration can win out in commercial theatre, and Mitchell and Hadestown deserve all the praise that have been heaped on them. Opening night was made even more memorable by the appearance during the curtain call of Mitchell herself, who sang a song about Orpheus that acted as a commentary on the musical. It was the perfect end to an extraordinary evening.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Nathan Lee Graham (with umbrella) as Hermes and the ensemble; Hannah Whitley as Eurydice and J. Antonio Rodriguez as Orpheus; Nathan Lee Graham as Hermes; Matthew Patrick Quinn as Hades and Hannah Whitley as Eurydice (foreground) with Dominique Kempf, Nyla Watson and Belén Moyano as the Fates (background); Nyla Watson, Belén Moyano and Dominique Kempf as the Fates. © 2023 T. Charles Erickson.

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