The devil gets his due in Hadestown.
Anaïs Mitchell’s Tony Award-winning folk opera roared into the Orpheum Theatre last week for a four-week run through July 3, and the underworld has never sounded quite as glorious. Based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the musical hits with all the locomotive power of the production’s effectively evoked train that carries departing souls past the river Styx.
The national tour doesn’t seem to have lost a step during the pandemic-induced delay as every element of the show is superlative, starting with a consistently winning cast. Tony-winner Levi Kreis serves as Hermes, the Hadestown narrator-cum-preacher who keeps the sad story on track, while Morgan Siobhan Green plays the streetwise Eurydice with a razor-edged balance of dignity and desperation. Nicholas Barasch’s Orpheus is best in the mode of musical savant, using his pure falsetto and gift for melody to beguile the doomed Eurydice while trying to complete a song that will summon the advent of spring.
The cast is well served by the production, from the stylish costume design and decor to the staging and lighting, which artfully conjure the seasonal cycles triggered by the netherworld comings and goings of Persephone, who’s played with the panache of a Jazz Age diva by Kimberly Marable. Portrayed with ravishing menace by Belén Moyano, Bex Odorisio and Shea Renne, the fearsome Fates deliver a steady stream of advice so cynical they seem to have wondered in from a play by Bertolt Brecht. Rachel Chavkin makes interesting choices in her direction, often letting pauses linger for an extra beat or three so that silence serves as a counterpoint to a score brimming with memorable lines.
The music unfolds with the seven-piece band strategically placed on stage and involved in the action, particularly trombonist Audrey Ochoa, who manages to join the terpsichorean festivities while taking a solo. If there’s a standout in the production, it’s Broadway veteran Kevyn Morrow as the vain and acquisitive Hades, who runs the underworld like a 19th-century union-busting robber baron with a commanding, fine-grained baritone.
He doesn’t steal the show. Mitchell’s gospel-infused score is so strong and the cast so vivid that even Morrow’s suave magnetism can’t dominate the proceedings. But he’s the fulcrum on which the musical pivots and the force that transforms a timeless parable into an all-too-timely cautionary tale. His call and response with his laboring minions, “Why We Build the Wall,” distills the dictator’s siren creed into its most lethally potent essence:
“Because we have and they have not!
Because they want what we have got!
The enemy is poverty
And the wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free.”
During an early iteration of the project in the summer of 2015, Mitchell presented a readthrough of the score at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage as part of Berkeley Rep’s Center for the Creation and Development of New Work Summer Residency Lab. At the time it was eerie the way that the rhetoric of a longshot Republican presidential primary candidate echoed “Why We Build the Wall.” But it was actually George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004 and Mitchell’s wavering faith in the power of writing politically topical songs that set her on a path toward Greek mythology as a vehicle for exploring her vision of a curdling American dream.
“Hades was a way to write about those things in an archetypical way, rather than tied to specific events,” she told me in a 2015 interview for KQED Arts. “When the album was coming out [in 2010] and the recession hit, themes of poverty and desperation really came to the fore. Now we’re on the road to recovery and other parts of the music and imagery feel a little more relevant. It’s an ancient myth that continues to resonate in so many ways.”
The themes of Hadestown resonate more loudly than ever today. The show’s only weak link is Orpheus, who is less a character than a series of impulses. Appearing first as a naïve and distracted lover besotted with Eurydice, he rallies to recover her from the underworld after his inattention contributes to her death. The ancient Greeks mostly held him in contempt. If he’d truly wanted to join her, he could have ended his life. Instead, he attempts to rescue her, turning into a (literally) underground revolutionary, only to fail Eurydice at the last moment. Hermes warns us at the beginning that the story is sad, but it needs to be told again and again. Orpheus isn’t a hero, and there’s little justice to be found, but Hadestown delivers on the promise of music to make the world a better place.