First things first: Hadestown is the best new musical I have seen in years. Anaïs Mitchell’s gorgeous adaptation of the myth of Orpheus (Reeve Carney) and Euridyce (Eva Noblezada) takes its cues from folk, bluegrass, and jazz, with the band onstage and eventually introduced, one by one, by a heavy-drinking, husky-voiced Persephone (Amber Gray). A sharply-dressed Hermes (André De Shields) narrates the action—he knows the ending but hopes, each time he tells it, that the ending may change. Orpheus is the writer of a song so beautiful it can bring flowers in the winter; it makes stones weep. When he goes to Hades to rescue Eurydice, it is an ancient melody that will free the lovers.
Hadestown is overflowing with rich, lively music. “Way Down in Hadestown,” catchy and carnivalesque, opens with the sounds of a train whistle and belies the sadness of Persephone’s return to her husband-master. Later, in “Our Lady of the Underground,” she offers a more guarded if no less cynical take on her six months in Hades: she survives by playing bartender: “I got wind right here in a jar / I got rain on tap at the bar / I got sunshine up on the shelf.” As played by Gray—who at times dances like a flower dying in time-lapse—Persephone is jaundiced, her movements never sloppy but always erratic.
The act-one closer, “Why We Build the Wall,” was written long before our current national nightmare and yet describes it with more elegance than any attempt I have seen to account for Trump on stage; thus far, plays that address the subject have proved consistently clumsy and ill-conceived. Here, a chorus of lifeless laborers, smudged with dirt and dressed in leather overalls, echo Hades’ (Patrick Page) catechisms: “Why do we build the wall? … We build the wall to keep us free … The wall keeps out the enemy … Who do we call the enemy? … The enemy is poverty.” The final resolution is, of course, circular: “What do we have that they should want? … We have a wall to work upon!” The broad, mythic strokes appeal on an emotional level without getting bogged down in meticulous allegory or cutesy asides.
Page, whose voice is deep enough to elicit laughter from the audience, expresses Hades’ power through speed: his movements are always slow, those of a man who hasn’t been surprised in centuries. De Shields is also excellent; his Hermes carries the weight of the show’s melancholy on his shoulders, but he clearly takes pleasure in the optimistic and generative nature of storytelling. Admittedly, Carney is a glaring exception among this first-rate cast: inexplicably dull and far too stiff, even for the character he is playing, his Orpheus is annoying and adolescent, hardly worthy of the emotional investment he demands. Still, this is ultimately a minor stain on an otherwise riveting musical.
Hadestown is on sale through November 22nd at the Walter Kerr Theatre. 219 W. 48th Street New York, NY. 2 hours 30 minutes. One intermission.