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Theatre in Review: Hadestown (New York Theatre Workshop)

Amber Gray. Photo: Joan Marcus

One enters New York Theatre Workshop to find the auditorium entirely reconfigured; instead of its customary end-stage arrangement, the audience is seated arena-style, in a series of concentric circles that step down to a smallish playing area. As designed by Rachel Hauck, it's a thematically appropriate concept, for Hadestown is the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, a descent into the underworld that runs on a river of gorgeous blues-jazz melodies. Originally conceived as a folk opera by Anaïs Mitchell (and released on a concept album) and further developed with the director Rachel Chavkin, this is a strikingly original work that retells one of western civilization's fundamental myths in a new and thoroughly insinuating way.

In Hadestown, Orpheus is a troubadour of sorts and one of the world's true innocents: "Let the world we dream about be the one we live in now," he asserts. Eurydice, on the other hand, is a little bit tougher and wised-up. In one of the catchiest songs, she asks, "Lover, tell me if you can/Who's going to buy the wedding bands?/Times being what they are/Hard and getting harder all the time." Orpheus' pie-in-the-sky answer goes like this: "Lover, when I sing my song/And all the rivers sing along/And they're gonna break their banks for me/To lay their gold around my feet/All a-flashing in the pan/All to fashion for your hand/The river's gonna give us the wedding bands." Clearly, this is a couple at loggerheads, despite their passion for each other, a situation that leaves them vulnerable to mischief-making interlopers.

And so it is that, in Orpheus' absence -- he's working on his music -- the neglected Eurydice accepts a ticket to the underworld, where she is promised food and gainful employment. It's a devil's bargain, for Hades' workers live lives of toil in an underworld protected by an enormous wall that, Hades himself asserts, "keeps us free" and "keeps out the enemy," which he defines as poverty. At moments like these, Hadestown comes across as a stinging commentary on a certain presidential candidate. When Orpheus tries to rescue Eurydice, Hades tells him, "These are working people, son/Law-abiding citizens/Go back to where you came from/You're on the wrong side of the fence."

As happens in the original myth, Orpheus cuts a deal with Hades, allowing the young man to rescue his lover, but only under certain conditions -- but you already know the rest. What's most engaging about Hadestown isn't the story it tells but the way it tells it -- with a barrelhouse sense of rhythm and plenty of blue notes. Under Chavkin's direction, the entire cast is in synch with the music's sassy, cynically upbeat mood, delivering each lyric with a lazy vibrato and a shrugging acknowledgement of the world's wicked ways. Damon Daunno's Orpheus is a suitably tousle-haired, wide-eyed innocent, totally convinced of the salubrious effects of his music. The charming Nabiyah Be is Eurydice, a girl with her mind on more earthly matters. Patrick Page, offering wicked bulletins from below in a rumble not unlike Leonard Cohen's, brings a godlike stature -- and a touch of menace -- to Hades. Amber Gray is the ever-jealous Persephone, who takes a dim view of Eurydice, Hades' latest acquisition. She shines in her big Act II number, "Our Lady of the Underworld." ("Hey, I got the wind right here in a jar/I got the rain on tap at the bar/I got sunshine up on the shelf/Allow me to introduce myself.") Chris Sullivan, as Hermes, our narrator and host, uses his furry growl to insist on the value of old songs: "Here's the thing/To know how it ends/And still begin/To sing it again/As if it might turn out this time/I learned that from a friend of mine." Lulu Fall, Jessie Shelton, and Shaina Taub make a sassy trio of Fates, offering color commentary on the whole tragic story.

The songs benefit immensely from the arrangements and orchestrations of Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose, as played by a lively seven-piece band. In a staging that demands the cast roam far and wide around the theatre, Bradley King's lighting ensures that we always know where to look. Michael Krass' costumes have a kind of thrift-shop chic that is suitable for the occasion. Robert Kaplowitz's sound design manages to keep the songs intelligible in a space defined by four stone walls with no acoustic treatment, by a cast that wanders all over the place, performing in front of the band.

The latest example of an established musical artist taking a flyer on musical theatre, Hadestown delivers its tragic tale with a wink and a snap in its step, aided by music so infectious that it's impossible not to start moving in your seat. If we get one or two more musicals with this much originality and verve, we will be looking at a season to remember. -- David Barbour

(2 June 2016)

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