Hadestown opens in San Francisco, steaming up a tragic tale with soulful songs and New Orleans jazz
You’re probably familiar with the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, the tragic lovers whose escape from the Underworld of ancient times is thwarted by the specter of mistrust and a classic, diabolical test of myth. With Hadesvillethe Tony-winning musical that finally toured and landed in San Francisco, myth becomes music and metaphor, and Greek tragedy has never sounded so melodic and bittersweet.
For the purposes of the musical and this unique retelling of the mythos, the underworld of Hades becomes Hadestown, and it’s a sweltering factory floor buried somewhere under a noisy New Orleans street where the music is still playing. . (Rachel Hauck’s set design centers us squarely in NoLa and it nicely turns into a spooky world of fours.) Persephone – played here with terrific energy and nuance by Kimberly Marable, who also has an incredible singing voice – is a mis -about wife and queen who lives in joy and pleasure for only half the year, returning to Earth in the spring with bottles of booze in her flowery picnic basket. Orpheus is a wide-eyed poet and songwriter, serving tables by day and working magic with his lyre (actually an electric guitar) by night. And in a not too subtle nod to LeaseEurydice is a bohemian compatriot, a scruffy-coat kid hungry for romance but even more hungry for real sustenance and security.
Hades, played by Kevyn Morrow, is a demanding taskmaster and an intimidating bass against the melodic chorus of voices, which quite convincingly assumes a certain human vulnerability by the end of the tale.
The Fates (played awfully here by Shea Renne, Bex Odorisio and Belen Moyano) is a conniving gossip trio in harsh make-up and 1920s outfits that hover around the action and mesh beautifully with a mix of warnings, jokes and advice.
Hermes, meanwhile, is the suave, charismatic narrator and bandleader – played in this production by Levi Kreis, a Broadway vet with singing chops who won a Tony Award in 2010 for his portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis. in Million Dollar Foursome. (The role of Hermes also won a Tony for its writer, Andre de Shields, who continues in the role today on Broadway.) The whole story, Hermes tells us, is a “sad song,” but it’s one that needs to be told. anyway, and by the way it is brightened up and lightened by a very beautiful narration.
As Orpheus and Eurydice, Nicholas Barasch and Morgan Siobhan Green are well matched vocally, and Barasch in particular masters incredibly difficult music in a very high vocal register with apparent ease. While their songs are all heartfelt and legitimately moving, the characters are written in a fairly two-dimensional way and without much specificity or chemistry to their attraction – which is a shame because the centrality of their love and our belief in it is vital to the play drama.
Hadesville was conceived by singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, who says she has been obsessed with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice since childhood. Shortly after graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont, Mitchell composed the original version of his “popular opera” titled Hadesville, and began shooting it in Vermont in 2007 playing the role of Eurydice herself. This resulted in a concept album, with friend and mentor Ani DiFranco singing the role of Persephone and Bon Iver/Justin Vernon singing the role of Orpheus. And finally, after adding 15 new songs, the show landed off-Broadway at the New York Theater Workshop in 2016, directed by Rachel Chavkin (who directed the Tony-winning Natasha, Pierre and the great comet of 1812).
The show was revised, revamped and tweaked in out-of-town tryouts in Edmonton and London before landing on Broadway in 2019 and winning that year’s Tony Award for Best New Musical.
The show remains, perhaps, a little disjointed in the manner of a work in progress, with at least two or three superfluous songs which leave the piece languishing a little in the middle – we all know, after all, where the story, and getting there is taking too long.
But it’s a beautiful and quirky play nonetheless, working through a myth that takes new metaphorical angles on immigration – there’s a song called “Why We Build the Wall” about to keep the less fortunate out of Hades, which is hard not to hear in the context of Donald Trump even though his writing predates his campaign – late-stage capitalism and climate change.
The industrious workers of Hades are portrayed as dead and numb-eyed, able to carry on with their menial tasks being utterly indifferent to the world beyond their immediate existence. And the springtime greenery brought by Persephone is described as missing or too brief in the first act, implying that the environment itself has gone haywire.
It’s the songs, however, that keep Hadesville afloat, and it’s easy to watch the show and immerse yourself in the harmonies while remaining blissfully unaware of these deeper readings.
Orpheus ruins everything by being too frail and human, turning to check if his love is still following him and banishing her to Hades forever. But the deal Persephone is forced to make, to spend half her year in darkness with a god who ostensibly loves her, maybe it’s fair trade so the rest of us can have cycles. constants of rebirth and bask in the sun upon his return. This part is hopeful, at least.
“Hadestown” plays until July 3 at the Orpheum Theater. Get tickets here.