“Hadestown,” the 2019 award-winning musical reimagining the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a New Orleans-style folk opera, arrived at the Ahmanson Theater in a smoldering fashion.
Born from a concept album by Anaïs Mitchell, who wrote the book, lyrics and music, the show travels to the underworld and returns with liquefied grace. Developed by Rachel Chavkin, the ingenious director who won a Tony for her direction, “Hadestown” achieves a fluidity of musical theater storytelling that makes an old tale feel startlingly new.
The story of Eurydice and Orpheus is presided over by Hermes (Levi Kreis, who won a Tony for playing Jerry Lee Lewis in “Million Dollar Quartet”). A mercurial character whose main role is the master of ceremonies, Hermès urges us to once again resurrect this ancient story of love and loss to see what new insights could be gained from another common encounter.
The initial setting resembles a New Orleans speakeasy. Orpheus (Nicholas Barasch), a struggling songwriter whom Hermès has taken under his wing, is immediately smitten when Eurydice (Morgan Siobhan Green) enters his life.
A wanderer looking for a meal, Eurydice instead receives a feast of affection that includes a marriage proposal. “Is he always like this?” she asks. “Yes,” replies Hermes. And so begins the saga of two young lovers whose attempt to cling to the paradise they briefly found in each other will lead them to the depths of hell.
Hades (Kevyn Morrow), the jealous tyrant of the underworld, and Persephone (Kimberly Marable), his wife who returns half of each year to the land of the living, occupy an equal place in Mitchell’s narrative. “Hadestown” takes a look at the power imbalance in male-female relationships without sacrificing romantic mystery.
Persephone is under the thumb of Hades, who oppresses his naturally temperamental wife with the same impunity he uses to exploit his indentured laborers. Eurydice forgoes her happiness with Orpheus for a less impoverished afterlife in Hades.
The book can admittedly get blurry, but the emotional weight of the story comes through nicely in the writing of the songs. Eurydice’s behavior is illuminated in a few lines of “Gone, I’m Gone”: “You can have your principles/When your stomach is full/But hunger has a way with you”. In “Hadestown”, the personal is never isolated from the political.
The stage is packed with dynamic musical artists. The Fates (Belén Moyano, Bex Odorisio, Shea Renne), who provide this explanation of Eurydice’s actions, add an additional choral layer to a musical that is as much about interpretation as it is about dramatization. A chorus of workers (Lindsey Hailes, Chibueze Ihuoma, Will Mann, Sydney Parra, Jamari Johnson Williams) in a Hades designed as an industrial wasteland provides powerful support to the proletariat.
Rachel Hauck’s stage design manages to convert a jazz club vibe into a Karl Marx-esque hellscape as the musical descends into the underworld. The surreal effect of this layout is enhanced by David Neumann’s choreography, which keeps the mass of bodies in hypnotic motion.
Unfolding like a dream, “Hadestown” speaks most eloquently through its sultry jazz score, which not only won a Tony, but also received a 2020 Grammy Award for Musical Theater Album. The characters in this show are differentiated more by their distinctive musical essences than by their dialogue.
Barasch brandishes a piercing falsetto to make us feel the innocent intensity of Orpheus. There are times when her singing could be modulated better, but the character is clearly lost in the dark whirlwind of her own loving thoughts.
Marable’s Persephone finds temporary rescue from her woes in honky-tonk. Green’s Eurydice has moodier riffs reminiscent of the moonlit moments in Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater’s score for “Spring Awakening.”
Comparisons between Broadway productions and touring shows are odious, but this incarnation of “Hadestown” helped me realize just how instrumental the original Broadway company was in the success of the show. The cast, I see now, was unimprovable, and it took me a while to adjust to the new staff.
The biggest loss is the absence of André De Shields, who won a Tony for his performance as Hermès. Kreis, who evokes a mischievous Harry Connick Jr., is vocally electric. But De Shields, who played the role as if leading a gospel-inspired rite, set a deeper spiritual tone.
Morrow’s Hades is a seductive devil with an authoritative voice, but I missed the deep Leonard Cohen resonances that rumbled from Patrick Page’s chest. Cohen is still hovering, but not to the same degree of penetration.
For those who haven’t seen “Hadestown” in New York, there should be no problem. The singing, especially in the group numbers, is irresistibly catchy.
Although the end of the myth is well known, Mitchell’s inventive musical made me hope against hope that Orpheus would finally be able to safely retrieve his beloved from the land of the dead. To succeed, however, confidence will have to overcome doubt.
Chavkin’s fascinating production takes us on a collective meditation on the locked destiny of these characters. That They Live Again is a testament to the undying power of this collaborative art form.
Or: Ahmanson Theater, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, Saturday from 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sunday from 1 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. Ends May 29. (Call for exceptions)
Tickets: $35 to $199 (subject to change)
Information: (213) 972-4400 or centertheatregroup.org
Operating time:2h30 with an intermission
COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccination is required. Masks are mandatory at all times. (Check website for changes.)