Hadestown at the Kennedy Center brings us the best of Broadway. It won a total of eight Tonys in 2019, including Best New Musical. The soaring music, explosively beautiful design, and first-rate performances welcome us back to the world of live theater.
The show is adapted from the folk opera by Anaïs Mitchell, developed with and directed by Rachel Chavkin. In the 2018–19 Broadway season, it won, in addition to the Tonys, four Drama Desk Awards, six Outer Critics Circle Awards, and the Drama League Award for Outstanding Musical. The national tour’s first stop is right here in DC.
Rachel Chavkin, who received the Tony for Best Direction of a Musical, was the only woman on Broadway directing a new musical that year. It is the first time in over ten years (and the fourth time in Broadway history) that a woman, Anaïs Mitchell, has written the music, lyrics, and book of a musical.
Based on the myths of Persephone and Orpheus, the narrative follows two couples, Persephone and her husband Hades, the billionaire ruler of hell, and the much younger musician Orpheus and the love of his life, Eurydice.
The music, from the deep, melodic tones of “Way Down Hadestown” to the passionate longing of “Wait for Me” steals the show, but there is much, much more to enjoy. There were Tonys for Best Musical, Best Music & Lyrics (Anaïs Mitchell), Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (André de Shields, in a role now played by Levi Kreis), Best Scenic Design of a Musical (Rachel Hauck), Best Lighting Design of a Musical (Bradley King), Best Sound Design of a Musical (Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz), Best Direction of a Musical (Rachel Chavkin), and Best Orchestrations (Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose).
Despite the tragic elements of the plot, which is based largely on the Greek myth of Orpheus, in the end there is a sense of hopefulness and rebirth. As anyone who has ever lost a loved one knows, it sometimes seems like going to hell and back would be a small price to pay to see them once again. That is perhaps the secret of the story’s longevity.
Our guide is Hermes (Levi Kreis), messenger of the gods, whose brash manner and nonstop energy instantly win us over. He takes Orpheus (Nicholas Barasch) under his wing, as he was a friend of Orpheus’ mother, the muse Calliope. (Orpheus’ father is generally considered to be Apollo.) The setting ranges from a Depression-era, New Orleans–style nightclub to the gates of hell itself, which appears to be short on fun and long on Social Darwinism.
Eurydice (Morgan Siobhan Green) is a “hungry girl” who is struggling to survive. Barasch’s Orpheus, also poor, is a gifted artist whose songs cast a spell over everyone who hears them. The two fall in love at first sight. They make an appealing couple, but both are burdened with dizzying transitions. Eurydice goes from being a young girl in love to a member of Hades’ miserable work team, who are nameless and must keep their noses to the grindstone. Orpheus goes from the joy of finding Eurydice to his desperate and terrifying journey to save her.
Hades (Kevyn Morrow) has turned hell into a kind of industrial prison. His Workers Chorus (Lindsey Hailes, Chibueze Ihuoma, Will Mann, Sydney Parra, and Jamari Johnson Williams), who are all splendid, try to keep their heads down and focus on the grim tasks assigned to them by Hades, a tough, wealthy boss with no illusions, except, perhaps, about himself.
In the first act finale, “Why We Build the Wall,” the denizens of hell sing about how they must build a wall to keep away the poor. They have been taught to be afraid of, and feel superior to, those who are poorer than they are.
There are many utterly delightful sequences. The fabulous Kimberly Marable, from the Broadway cast, has two knockout numbers, “Livin’ It Up on Top” with Hermes, Orpheus, and the Company, and “Our Lady of the Underground” on her own at the beginning of Act II.
The Fates, Belén Moyano, Bex Odorisio, and Shea Renne, are a terrific song and dance team who seem to follow Green’s Eurydice everywhere. Kevyn Morrow as Hades tempts Eurydice to join him in hell with “Hey, Little Songbird.” His reunion with Marable’s Persephone is expertly played, although she does seem to forgive him rather quickly for whatever he was up to with Eurydice.
Four-time Tony nominee Michael Krass brings color and imaginative flair to the costumes, and David Neumann’s choreography is as fast-moving and entertaining as the show itself. Kudos are due to Liam Robinson (music supervision and vocal arrangements); the glorious Orchestra, Cody Owen Stine (also Music Director), Ko Sugiyama, Jacob Yates, Michiko Egger, Audrey Ochoa, Calvin Jones, Anthony Johnson; Music Coordinator David Lai; and Dramaturg Ken Cerniglia, as well as Swings Kimberly Immanuel, Alex Lugo, Eddie Noel Rodríguez, and Nathan Salstone.
Chavkin has said that Eurydice makes the choice to go down to hell because the creators did not want her to be a victim. Her motivations are in some ways a bit unclear. But this detracts little from the production’s overall excellence.
Hadestown runs through October 31, 2021. Don’t miss it! After all, in his Sonnets to Orpheus (1923), as translated by Stephen Mitchell in Ahead of All Parting (1995), the great Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke said,
….It is Orpheus once for all
whenever there is song. He comes and goes.
Isn’t it enough if sometimes he can dwell
With us a few days longer than a rose?
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
View the Hadestown digital program here.
Kennedy Center’s COVID Safety Plan is here.