Review: ‘Hadestown’ at The New York Theatre Workshop

You have until July 31st to treat yourself to a trip to the East Village where you will find Hadestown, a rich plum cake of a folk opera, happily ensconced at the New York Theatre Workshop. I came to it in the middle of its limited run because there was an influx of openings when it first appeared, and this was my first opportunity to see it. The space has been transformed to accommodate the staging concept of Rachel Chavkin, which offers lucidity for this reexamination of the well known myth of Orpheus and Euridice. Wooden chairs  (with welcome cushions) have been sprinkled almost in amphitheatre style, leaving room for the fine 7 piece orchestra and its pianist conductor Liam Robinson. There are walkways and exits on many levels, and various members of the eight person company use all of them to great visual effect. Lighting keeps the focus where it belongs; Bradley King’s lighting design is admirable, and suits the minimal but serviceable settings of Rachel Hauck.

Cast of 'Hadestown.' Photo by Joan Marcus.

Cast of ‘Hadestown.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

The journey of this remarkable work has been long and arduous. The details are complicated but you should know that the work began when Anais Mitchell, while living in Vermont, began writing songs inspired by the myth of Orpheus. She worked in collaboration with others and the songs were performed in halls and opera houses around the state. Ms. Mitchell later recorded the songs produced by collaborator (and bass player) Todd Sicafoose, and released in 2010. In 2013 the composer and Director Rachel
Chavkin met and began working on an expanded theatrical version. There were workshops at the Theatre Workshop’s Dartmouth Residency, and later two more workshops. A fourth one led to the introduction of the orchestrations, (effective and rich, by Michael Chorney) and finally the finished work went into rehearsal in April 2016. One cannot but gasp at the total commitment made by an army of dedicated artists to bring Ms. Mitchell’s original songbook to life as a vivid example of valid musical theatre.

It’s a tale familiar to most, a simple enough story of a young man (Orpheus)
falling instantly in love with a beautiful young girl (Euridice). He woos her with his poetry and his music; that it is lovely and lush helps his cause and he wins her. But three ladies (known as Fate) are always present to remind us that hardship and natural disasters paint the background to their romance, and “the flood’ll get you if the fire don’t.” reminds us that there is trouble ahead.

As sung by Lulu Fall, Jessie Shelton and Shaina Taub, these three are always worth listening to. Persephone, who appears on earth each year only from spring to harvest time spends the rest of her time as Queen to Hades, the ruler of Hadestown down below the earth. As Euridice grows impatient at Orpheus’ inability to explain how they will live as a couple when all he can do is paint pretty pictures with his poetry, Hades makes a rare appearance and is immediately attracted to her. He offers her everything Orpheus cannot, and she accepts his invitation to visit his kingdom, where everyone has a job to do, and she is tempted by his command, attracted even to his dominance.

Orpheus misses his love and in an attempt to retrieve her, he is forced to walk all the way down to Hadestown, as the Fate ladies explain to him that only those invited there are offered a quick trip down. His difficulties are beautifully staged by making use of the many platforms and levels of the playing area. He finds Euridice and begs her to return as he sings “Come Home With Me!” She must examine whether or not she’d pledged herself to Hades, and the conclusion takes this material further into the realm of grand opera than it does to musical theatre.

Damon Duanno (Orpheus) and Nabiyah Be (Eurydice). Photo by Joan Marcus.

Damon Duanno (Orpheus) and Nabiyah Be (Eurydice). Photo by Joan Marcus.

It is from start to finish a richly textured musical piece, given vivid life by its
cast. Innocence and honesty radiate from the lovely Nabiyah Be as Euridice, and she is matched by the virility combined with grace of Damon Daunno as Orpheus. The tale is narrated by Hermes, played as a bar room crony with an air of “I’ve seen it all.” Chris Sullivan has the weight and the irony that makes Hermes a vivid ringmaster to the unfolding circus. We wait for the entrance of Hades, late in the first of two acts, and when it’s his time, Patrick Page makes it clear he’s the boss. His very rich bass baritone voice, distorted on occasion to mythic proportions by a very old fashioned looking microphone, is arresting. Beautifully suited in black, his fingers ablaze with lots of bling, his body erect and commanding, he becomes the driving force of the rest of the story. Amber Gray’s “Persephone” is a lady with a point of view of her own. The secret of her successful marriage to Hades appears to be that for six months of every year they are apart, and that seems to suit them both well.

Rachel Chavkin has worked well with David Neumann, incorporating his
choreography into her staging all evening long so their contributions are seemless. The score is dense, there are some 35 song titles which leaves little room for a book of any depth. Those songs are lovely, lively, stimulating as required. On rare occasion, I found the piece overly explicit,  and on occasion repetitive, but at two hours and ten minutes it  is only slightly overweight.

A rare treat, taken all in all, Hadestown is well worth a visit to a still colorful neighborhood of Manhattan which retains much of its early character.

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Hadestown plays through July 31, 2016 at the New York Theatre Workshop – 79 East 4th Street, in New York City (Between Bowery and 2nd Avenue). For tickets, call the Box Office at (212) 460-5475, or purchase them online.

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