Twelve years in the making, “Hadestown” has hit its moment bang on. A show that started life as a touring production for schools, instilling the Orpheus myth into kids through song, became a cult concept album, then an Off Broadway show. Anais Mitchell’s musical — a folk opera, really — is Broadway-bound next year, and it’s been gussied right up for its advance run in London. It’s a good time show for bad time times, a hoot that hits its political points hard.
Famously, Mitchell’s score has spawned a Trump protest song, and “Why We Build the Wall” is astonishingly prophetic — a number about the freedom that comes from keeping others out. Far from being pat and reactionary, however, “Hadestown” demolishes a host of American ideals.
Mitchell sticks close to the original myth, fleshing its slight narrative out in song, but she soaks her score in contemporary Americana. It functions like a folksy, old patchwork quilt, pulling musical influences in from across the land. There are dustbowl ballads and blue-collar rock, honky southern soul and New Orleans jazz, a trombone underlining this deep guttural sound; the scuzzy, sexy side of the States. With a few canny tweaks, Mitchell remakes a centuries-old story for 21st century capitalism.
Hades himself, king of the dead, becomes a very contemporary devil. He’s a fatcat mining magnate, who promises his minions – and Eva Noblezada’s Eurydice – security if they sell over their souls to slave away underground. In his coal-black suit, silver pinstripes glistening like mineral seams, Patrick Page stands still as a rock, his voice rumbling like an earth tremor, and asset-strips the planet. It’s true what they say: the devil will drag you under.
His adversary, Reeve Carney’s Orpheus, is a blue-eyed, blue-collar hero. In his scuffed denim jacket, guitar slung over his shoulder, Carney comes across as a fey Bruce Springsteen; a dreamy kid singing “a song so beautiful it brings the world back in tune.” In “If It’s True” — Mitchell’s most profound number — he sees straight through the flawed logic and lies on which capitalism’s built, and if Carney can be overly earnest, it only makes his idealism seem hopelessly naïve. When he finally leads Eurydice up and out, looking dead ahead, his courage catches you off-guard; Orpheus practicing his preaching at personal cost.
Since its Off Broadway outing two years ago, director Rachel Chavkin has relocated the action from sacred ground beneath an ancient tree to a crumbling old communion hall down south. Less myth, more ‘Merica — and it’s a great call. Instead of taking itself seriously, “Hadestown” sends itself up, leavening a tragic tale and unleashing the uplift of its take-away message: that maybe, just maybe, art, story and song can make a real difference. There’s a defiance in daring to dream, and “Hadestown” preaches hope in spite of itself. What better setting than old New Orleans?
In fact, it’s almost more concert than theater — a big, bluesy blow-out that takes over the auditorium. André de Sheilds presides as a Smokey Robinson-style emcee, a smooth Hermes with windswept hair and a mercury suit, and the three Fates become sultry backing singers adorned in black feathers. Amber Gray’s Peresphone, whose moods change with the seasons, is a horn-voiced hoofer; the good-time girl who riles up the crowd then goes off the rails. Rachel Hauck’s set design deploys a triple revolve, animating a story that could so easily stand still and locking these tragic figures into each other’s orbit.
But it’s still Mitchell’s music that makes “Hadestown.” Infectious without trying too hard to be catchy, her songs heat up as the show heads down to hell: Carney and Noblezada’s heady, sentimental duets give way to the thrusting exuberance of Gray’s “Living it Up On Top” and the incessant tug of rhythmic worksongs that “keep the rustbelt rolling.” Her lyrics, in particular, are ear-catchingly good, all “rivers of oblivion” and doubt that “leaves a trace of vinegar and turpentine.” As “the whole damn nation” goes to hell in a handcart,” “Hadestown” is sure to flame the fans.