The company of Hadestown (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Music, Lyrics, & book by Anaïs Mitchell
Developed with & directed by Rachel Chavkin
A review by Allie Fireel
Entire contents are copyright © 2023 by Allie Fireel. All rights reserved.
As Hermes (Nathan Lee Graham) reminds us in the opening moments of Hadestown, “It’s an old song.” But apparently, a lot of you didn’t go through a Greek mythology phase, and it really shows. At least, that’s what I gleaned from the responses of many audience members last night when I saw Hadestown at The Kentucky Center for the Arts, presented by Broadway Louisville. So I guess I should try to keep the review free of spoilers pertaining to a story that’s at least 2,500 or so years old.
Hadestown tells the tale of Orpheus. The son of a muse, he is a poet, a singer, and an all-around beautiful soul. He falls in love with a woman named Euridyce. It’s happy. The end? Of course not, this is a Greek myth, which means The Gods are going to get involved, shit’s gonna get weird, and happy endings only happen when Disney ruins an otherwise pretty good Hercules movie by saying Hera was the loving mother of Hercules. Loving mother? Of HERCULES? Like, do you even Edith Hamilton bro? Of course, the question for Hadestown, and really the question for many of the Broadway Series offerings, is whether or not the touring production can satisfy people who don’t know the show, and the fans who have streamed the soundtrack a trillion times. My partner Rachel is a huge fan of the Off-Broadway concert album and listens to it all the time. I’ve listened to it once, and was pretty meh. (But as you may have noticed, I’m kind of a jerk about Greek myth.) Regardless, we both walked away from the show at the KCA deeply moved by the production. From the vibe last night, I’d say most of the audience was feeling the same.
Only Most? Yes. Only most. Bide a moment while I fetch my soapbox. (Jeopardy theme song plays…. ah yes. Jeopardy is still recording new episodes despite the writer’s strike because its star, Ken Jennings, crossed picket lines to get to work. So much for solidarity. Oh, look! My soapbox! It was under me the whole time! Okay, back to the review). Now, I don’t want to upset anyone, but from the response of several of the older, white, affluent, cis-hetero presenting patrons, Hadestown might be, political. How do I know people thought that? Some of the folks around me couldn’t shut up about it. Example: after the first act closer, wherein the character Hades (a skillful and scorching hot dom daddy performance from the talented Matthew Patrick Quinn), sings the gorgeous and chilling “Why We Build the Wall,” about forcing people to work in hellish oppressive conditions while building a wall around Hadestown. The affluent-looking, older, white, cis-hetero-presenting man sitting in front of me leaned over to his companion and scornfully whispered, “I think I’m supposed to be getting a message.”
In his defense, on its surface, Hadestown is not subtle, and one could certainly view the story as a straightforward political statement play. But that’s the kind of thinking that causes people to say things like “The Crucible isn’t about the Salem Witch Trials, it’s about McCarthyism,” or “Good Night and Good Luck isn’t about McCarthyism, it’s about the Bush administration’s abridgment of free speech.” For the record, Anaïs Mitchell, who wrote Hadestown’s book, music, and lyrics, started work on this play in 2006, a decade before a wall between America and Mexico became a popular talking point for former President Trump. It just so happens to ring true for our audience, because as Hermes tells us: It’s an old song. The action of a play, and any resulting themes, can and often do reflect current social ills and events, but aren’t solely tied to the political landscape at the time the play was written. Ad those are the actions and events of a play. Not the story. The story of Hadestown, as Hermes tells us, is a story about someone who tries.
Yeah- 2006. So how come it just got to Broadway in 2019? Hadestown’s circuitous path to Broadway ran from the concept album to concert-only musical performance, to an Off-Broadway staged concert, a live recording of that performance which blew up on digital, all leading at last to Broadway, Tony Awards, and regional tours. That journey is reflected in the staging and scenic design by Rachel Chavik and Rachel Hauck respectively. (#TeamRachel). When the audience enters the auditorium, the set of the play is already in full view, and it’s giving a sad, run-down jazz club, albeit a gorgeous and highly stylized sad run-down jazz club. When the action starts, the cast and orchestra wander onstage and just kinda get ready to start. (That’s weird, opined the Chap sitting next to me). An MC shows up, as is often the case in a club, and finally, the music gets started. The majority of the action is staged using a couple of (very sturdy) dilapidated chairs and tables. But as the play progresses, especially when everything goes to hell, the set mutates, changes, and grows to mythic proportions. In addition to invoking the rags to riches origin of the play, this glow-up reflects a transition from the human to the divine; the everyday to the mythic.
While the set does some amazing things, it’s never a literal representation of a place, in fact, the script is careful to play fast and loose with time and place. This leads to a lot of exposition from Hermes which is sometimes necessary for the action to cohere. Graham’s performance invokes other Broadway MCs such as The Master of Ceremonies from Cabaret and The Leading Player from Pippin, and although Graham is be-suited, he includes a dash of drag ball panache. I loved him, but fans of the Off-Broadway recording may miss the bluesy interpretation of Hermes from Chris Sullivan.
I should clarify that while Graham’s Hermes gets the party started, the music gets going with a trombone solo that quickly establishes the debt the musical owes to New Orleans Jazz. Apropos a jazz club, the orchestra is in full view the entire show, and *holy crap this trombone player.* Hadestown is the only trombone-forward musical I’ve encountered. Trombonist (and glockenspiel-ist!) Emily Fredrickson is basically treated like a member of the cast, literally stepping into the spotlight multiple times. The obvious skill on display, paired with the sultry music, and Fredrickson’s swagger (That suit! That hat!) legit gave me the vapors.
J. Antonio Rodriguez (Orpheus) and Hannah Whitley (Eurydice) disappeared in their roles more than the other performers, though they each have multiple solo moments and are at the center of the action. Most of the other characters, had directly flirty and fun relationships with the audience, especially Maria-Christina Oliveras’s endearing and outre Persephone. The resulting dissonance served to ground Orpheus and Eurydice’s relationship in a visceral way. It was subtle but palpable, and I wondered how much of it was a result of the individual performers, and how much was a deft touch from director Rachel Chavkin.
The ensemble functioned as a Greek chorus, and unlike the chorus line in many musicals, were integral to the emotional core of the play, not just some folks doing fancy dancin’. Special shout out to chorus member Courtney Lauster who – unless I misinterpreted – was actually wiping away a tear at the beginning of curtain call. That’s some emotional commitment right there. (Personally, I didn’t cry until the post-bow song, “We Raise Our Cups,” Some flowers bloom where the green grass grows/ our praise is not for them/ but the one who bloom in the bitter snow/we raise our cups to them).
Part of the importance of the chorus is the way they served as the oppressed worker class of citizens in Hadestown. The play isn’t expressly pro-union, but the discussion of workers uniting because of brutal, dehumanizing working conditions in Hadestown, merges the emotional impact of the chorus with the action of the story, and engage not only the social conditions of our moment in time, but also the specific positionality of this production; ie. the writer’s strike in Hollywood, and the fact that not all of the tours Broadway Louisville brings to town are union gigs. Which brings me back to my soapbox, and the “political themes” of the play. In the end, the “political themes” aren’t the real story. And if that’s all you hear, you weren’t really listening. The real theme is that despite the pain we face over and over again, the heartbreak and failures, despite how many times we’ve heard the “old song,” we keep singing it. Because inside that song are moments of hope. Hope that light, love, kindness, and spring will come back someday. So, actually, Mr. Affluent Cis-Het White Man, this play doesn’t have a message for you. This play low-key doesn’t give a fuck about you. The play’s message is for sad, struggling, probably broke people who might be losing hope, and need help to keep singing. Even if it is an old song.
Last soapbox and it’s one I’ve decided to start harping on constantly until it changes: The seats in Whitney Hall are inherently size-ist and fat-phobic, presumably “Because Capitalism,” but it builds a wall around any production there, and inherently shames large people. The seats clearly state; “you aren’t welcome in our theatre.”
May 17 – 21, 2023
Broadway in Louisville
The Kentucky Center
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Allie Fireel is a bi-polar non-binary queer, creator, critic, and cultural community organizer working in the greater Louisville area who just earned an MFA in Theatre from the University of Louisville. Their plays have been produced by multiple Louisville based companies including Theatre , Looking for Lillith, Finnegan Productions, and The Derby City Playwrights, Suspend Productions, and others. They are also the co-founder and artistic director of the Louisville Fringe Festival, and a member of the 2019 Hadley Creatives co-hort.
As Buster Fireel, they dabble in burlesque, both as a dancer and an MC. As Kerry the Killer Lawrence, they provide commentary and drama for Louisville Championship Arm Wrestling