“It’s an old song…… a sad tale; it’s a tragedy," warns Hermes, the flashy and fabulous messenger God turned musical narrator in the opening number of the exuberantly illuminating Hadestown.
The calamity of which he speaks is that of Orpheus and Eurydice, one of Greek mythology's most beloved tales, young lovers torn apart by Godly forces and failings of man.
At least that’s what Hermes (Nathan Lee Graham) is speaking of in the literal sense. After all, Hadestown (music, lyrics, and book by Anaïs Mitchell, direction by Rachel Chavkin) does present a version of the young lover’s story, intertwined narratively with the crumbling marriage of King Hades and his wife Persephone.
However, by the time we get to the end of the 2019 Tony winner for Best Musical, we realize the sad tale Hermes alludes to is far bigger than one ill-fated love story. In fact, it’s as big as the whole world.
Based on a concept album Mitchell wrote in 2010, Hadestown the musical, modernizes the mythic tale by layering issues of climate change, depletion of natural resources, economic inequality, capitalistic greed, nationalism, fear/hatred of foreigners, and yes, wall-building, onto the timeless story.
However, don't assume finger-pointing at any one recent place, time, or person - Hadestown was written long before our present politics. Rather, the musical is an examination of an archetype; how we step forward and then back in the dance of industry versus nature, greed versus love, haves and have-nots, and so on.
Big ideas to wrestle with. Easily a downer in the wrong hands. Thankfully Mitchell ensures her existential mythic/issue layer cake is moist and tempting all the way through by icing it with often joyfully percussive New Orleans-style jazzy blues music. Music you actually want to listen to. The kind that casts an undeniably cool factor on each number as the story unfolds.
Orpheus (Chibueze Ihuoma), the optimistic poet, works obsessively on a song he’s sure will cure the ills of the world, namely the increasing lack of spring and the verdant, warm rebirth that comes with it. While Eurydice (Hannah Whitley) loves the dreamer in him, her worries about food and shelter occupy her mind. A storm is coming and preparations must be made.
Ravenous, she roams, struggling to find something to eat on her climate-changed planet. Exhausted and starving, her will beaten down by the mind-whispering Fates (Dominique Kempf, Belén Moyano, and Nyla Watson serving wonderful vocal harmony), she’s lured into the underworld by promises of an easier, more comfortable life.
Once there, Eurydice is an easy target for the tyrannical Hades (Matthew Patrick Quinn), King of the Underworld. He grants her eternal life, but also eternal overtime as forced labor, building an impenetrable wall around his vast coal/oil/electric grid industrial fortune.
When Orpheus (Chibueze Ihuoma) learns of Eurydice’s whereabouts, he sets off on a hero’s journey to rescue her from the bowels of the earth. This love-driven self-sacrifice catches the attention of Hades’ wife, Persephone (Maria-Christina Oliveras).
As both the Queen of the Underworld and Goddess of Spring itself, Persephone must split her time equally between Hade’s barren territory and the world of living things up top. Her moments granting spring become shorter and shorter each year while her husband robs the earth, putting seasons out of tune.
It's an arrangement she grows increasingly dissatisfied with, causing emotional distance between her and Hades.
The result is a deal with the devil kind of proposition. Reminded of his original love of Persephone, Hades offers Orpheus and Eurydice the chance to escape, with a catch. He’ll let the lovers go (and possibly his now rioting forced laborers to follow) as long as Orpheus can keep his self-doubt at bay and trust fully in the love he and Eurydice share.
It’s a sad tale; it’s a tragedy Hermes (Nathan Lee Graham) reminds us once again as we dust off from the fateful ending. However, it’s hard to feel anything but glee when it’s Graham’s turn on stage. His silver shiny suit with winged sleeves and sequin vest may twinkle, but the true spark comes from the performance itself, marrying seductive bravado with masterful vocals.
It’s almost a shame that Graham gets the energetic and chugging full steam ahead opening number, as the charisma/talent he exudes then and throughout the show is never matched by the rest of the lead performers.
To be fair, Houston is the first stop for a new principal cast of this touring show, so allowances can be made for a somewhat less-than-perfect effort.
The hope for future performances is that, as Persephone, Oliveras retains her humorous/ballsy manner but finds a way to rein in the breathlessness that haunts her energetic numbers. As Hades, Quinn delivers the baritone but falls short on the bombast. Songs at a low pitch alone aren’t going to make us think we’re in the presence of an underworld King. A little menace would do him well.
After Graham’s Hermes, Whitley as Eurydice fairs the best of the new lot, even if her stage presence relies predominantly on her grunge/punk look of ripped tights, combat boots, and long messy braids. But no question she can sing. Her duet with Orpheus, where the two express feelings of knowing each other for a lifetime, is by far one of the show’s most moving numbers.
So, then what to make of Ihuoma as Orpheus as a solo performer? That depends on the octave requirements. When allowed to sing in his natural pitch, Ihuoma does quite fine. But throw him into falsetto, which unfortunately comprises most of his numbers, and he can’t quite make it work.
Suddenly Orpheus's angelic song to save the world veers slightly off-key and lacks sweet clarity and control, breaking its spell over us.
When it comes to spells, apparently one of the biggest enchantments of the original Broadway production was Rachel Hauck's set design which featured a rising floor elevator (hellevator?) that deposited characters to and fro from the underworld.
This is replaced on the touring show by a kind of garage door Hellmouth that opens and closes leaving any descending motion to our imagination. It may not be as sexy, but it does the job. More impressively, the low-tech French Quarter feeling set design featuring ornate rod iron railings and balconies shows that you don’t need projections or multiple set pieces to deliver an evocative set.
Especially not if you populate it with the seven-piece band flanking the set on both sides, save for the lonely drummer behind the stage and out of sight. The fate of playing too large an instrument, one supposes.
But it's David Neumann’s choreography that really brings the set to life, with a chorus almost always in motion, punctuating every sentiment of the story. Working like limbs of the same beast, they are especially magnetic in the underworld where they serve as both witnesses to Orpheus’ treacherous search for Eurydice and as Hades' cadre of indentured industrial slaves.
Why do we tell this famous story repeatedly knowing how it ends, Hermes asks us to ask ourselves in the final few quiet moments of the show.
His response, in case we haven’t figured out what Mitchell wants us to take away, is not to get bogged down in the tale's failure. Rather we should focus on the possibility of what might be. What could be? If we had the chance to try. Or more instructively, when we have the chance to try.
Nothing sad or tragic about that thought at all.
Hadestown continues through October 9 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For more information, call 800-982-2787 or visit thehobbycenter.org or Broadwayatthehobbycenter.com $35-On Demand Pricing.