Hell looks a lot like New Orleans in director Rachel Chavkin’s stunning production of “Hadestown,” singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell’s ravishing music-theater piece at New York Theater Workshop. This modern vision of the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice originated as a recorded song cycle that toured extensively before being developed for the stage at a number of non-profit theater venues. Consider this spellbinding work a flowering of the workshop creative process.
The tone is elegiac and the style hypnotic when the show opens in some blasted wasteland stretched out beneath a sprawling, barren tree. The theater has been stripped down from its fixed auditorium seating plan and reconfigured as theater-in-the-round — the better to draw the audience into this otherworldly show. Visually, this austere setting is a winner for designers Rachel Hauck (set) and Bradley King (lighting), while Robert Kaplowitz (sound) conjures up the eerie resonance of a world without hope.
As Mitchell’s devastating lyrics put it: “In the fever of a world in flames / In the season of the hurricanes / Flood’ll getcha if the fire don’t / Any way the wind blows.”
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Picking up the sung-through narrative of the human exodus from this desolate place, a roguishly charming Chris Sullivan as the trickster god Hermes appears in the umbrella-wielding costume and dancing guise of a parading funeral mourner. Accompanied by the backup wails of three gorgeous Fates with interesting hair (played by Jessie Shelton, Shaina Taub and Lulu Fall), his job is to direct these lost, wandering souls to the “Road to Hell” — by way of a fast train with a lonesome whistle, of course.
But this time, when the train stops, Life and Youth and Spring step off, in the person of Persephone (the sensational Amber Gray). Gorgeously gowned (by Michael Krass) in the softest shade of green and wearing flowers in her hair, the goddess of the seasons spends the winter of the year in the underworld with her husband, Hades (Patrick Page, in thrilling bass voice and sexy black boots).
But come spring, she appears above ground (“with a suitcase full of summertime”) to breathe new life into the earth. And for a while, the whole world forgets its troubles and is “Livin’ It Up On Top” with Persephone.
It’s in this life-affirming context that sensitive Orpheus (Damon Daunno) and Eurydice (Nabiyah Be, a lovely soprano) fall in love and sing their brains out. But even their soaring love duet “Wedding Song” must acknowledge “times being what they are” — namely, “hard and getting harder all the time,” “dark and getting darker all the time.”
Not even Orpheus’ ardent songs and poems can keep his love warm and fed, and when winter comes round again, love grows cold and a starving Eurydice gives in and buys a ticket to the underworld, where Hades keeps his factories, mines, and mills humming and his workers warm and fed.
Over Persephone’s protests (“That was not six months!”), winter is once again upon the earth when that hell-bound train arrives to carry off Eurydice “Way Down Hadestown.” The three Fates acquire long leather coats to wear over their gaudy Mardi Gras frocks and warn the passengers that “Mister Hades is a mighty king / Must be making some mighty big deals / Seems like he owns everything.”
Mitchell’s music is a feast of styles from rocky blues to folk opera, played by a terrific seven-piece band with a smokin’ drummer. But the music of the underworld is the darkest in tone and richest in content. Orpheus’s lyrical laments when he belatedly appears to rescue Eurydice can’t sing away the powerful magic of Hades. And when Persephone confronts her husband about the “neon necropolis” he has built below, his chilling defense, the mesmerizing call-and-response chant, “Why We Build the Wall,” is that walls exist to protect those who have it all from those who have nothing.
In the end, life triumphs over death when the seasons change and, once again, Persephone ascends from the underworld to bring light and life (“I Raise My Cup”) to a winter-weary world. But in Mitchell’s melancholy take on this ancient fertility myth, the darkness seems to be gaining ground. Neither music nor poetry, nor even love, can feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, comfort the suffering, or bring the dead to life.