“It’s an old song… a sad tale; it’s a tragedy,” warns Hermes, the flamboyant and fabulous messenger God turned musical narrator in the opening number to the exuberantly luminous Hadestown.
The tragedy he speaks of is that of Orpheus and Eurydice, one of Greek mythology’s most beloved tales, young lovers torn apart by divine forces and human error.
At least that’s what Hermes (Nathan Lee Graham) is literally talking about. After all, Hadestown (music, lyrics and book by Anaïs Mitchell, directed by Rachel Chavkin) presents a version of the young lover’s story, intertwined narratively with the crumbling marriage between King Hades and his wife Persephone.
But when we get to the end of the 2019 Tony winner for Best Musical, we realize that the sad story Hermes alludes to is far bigger than one ill-fated love story. In fact, it is as big as the entire world.
Based on a concept album Mitchell wrote in 2010, Hadestown the musical, modernizes the mythic tale by superimposing issues of climate change, natural resource depletion, economic inequality, capitalist greed, nationalism, fear/hatred of foreigners, and yes, wall building onto the timeless story.
However, don’t assume that you are pointing the finger at a specific place, time or person – Hadestown was written long before our current politics. Rather, the musical is an examination of an archetype; how we step forward and then back in the dance of industry versus nature, greed versus love, haves and have-nots, and so on.
Big ideas to contend with. Easily a downer in the wrong hands. Fortunately, Mitchell ensures that her existential mythic/problem layer cake is moist and tantalizing throughout by garnishing it with often delightfully percussive New Orleans-style jazzy blues music. Music you actually want to listen to. The kind that casts an undeniable cool factor on each track as the story unfolds.
Orpheus (Chibueze Ihuoma), the optimistic poet, is obsessively working on a song he’s sure will cure the world’s ills, namely the increasing lack of spring and the green, warm rebirth that comes with it. While Eurydice (Hannah Whitley) loves the dreamer in him, her worries about food and shelter occupy her mind. A storm is coming and preparations must be made.
She is ravenous and roams around struggling to find something to eat on her climate-altered planet. Exhausted and starving, she will be beaten down by the mind-whispering fates (Dominique Kempf, Belén Moyano and Nyla Watson, who serve up wonderful vocal harmony), she is lured into the underworld by promises of an easier and more comfortable life.
Once there, Eurydice is an easy target for the tyrannical Hades (Matthew Patrick Quinn), King of the Underworld. He grants her eternal life, but also eternal overtime as forced labor, where he builds an impenetrable wall around his vast coal/oil/electrical industry wealth.
When Orpheus (Chibueze Ihuoma) learns of Eurydice’s whereabouts, he embarks on a hero’s journey to rescue her from the depths of the earth. This love-driven self-sacrifice catches the attention of Hades’ wife, Persephone (Maria-Christina Oliveras).
As both the queen of the underworld and the goddess of spring herself, Persephone must divide her time equally between the barren territory of Hades and the world of living things above. Her moments that give spring grow shorter and shorter each year, while her husband robs the earth and puts the seasons out of tune.
It’s an arrangement she grows increasingly unhappy with, creating emotional distance between her and Hades.
The result is a deal with the devil’s kind of proposition. Remembering his original love for Persephone, Hades gives Orpheus and Eurydice the chance to escape with a catch. He will let the lovers go (and possibly his now revolting forced laborers to follow) as long as Orpheus can keep his confidence at bay and trust fully in the love he and Eurydice share.
It is a sad tale; it’s a tragedy that Hermes (Nathan Lee Graham) reminds us of as we dust off the fateful ending. However, it is difficult to feel anything but joy when it is Graham’s turn on stage. His silver suit with winged sleeves and sequin vest may flash, but the true spark comes from the performance itself, combining seductive bravado with masterful vocals.
It’s almost a shame that Graham gets the energetic and crunchy opening number full steam ahead, as the charisma/talent he exudes then and throughout the show is never matched by the rest of the main cast.
To be fair, Houston is the first stop for a new lead in this touring show, so a less-than-perfect effort can be accounted for.
The hope for future performances is that Oliveras as Persephone maintains her humorous/ballsy manner but finds a way to rein in the shortness of breath that haunts her energetic numbers. As Hades, Quinn delivers the baritone but falls short with the bombast. Songs with a low pitch alone will not make us believe that we are in the presence of an underworld king. A little threat would do him good.
After Graham’s Hermes, Whitley as Eurydice exhibits the best of the new lot, although her stage presence relies predominantly on her grunge/punk look with ripped tights, combat boots and long messy braids. But no doubt she can sing. Her duet with Orpheus, in which the two express feelings of knowing each other for a lifetime, is by far one of the series’ most moving numbers.
So what to say about Ihuoma as Orpheus as a solo artist? It depends on the octave requirements. When Ihuoma is allowed to sing in his natural pitch, he does quite well. But throw him into falsetto, which unfortunately encompasses most of his tracks, and he can’t quite make it work.
Suddenly, Orpheus’ angelic song to save the world is a bit off-key and lacks sweet clarity and control, breaking its spell on us.
When it comes to spells, apparently one of the biggest enchantments of the original Broadway production was Rachel Hauck’s set design, which featured an elevator in a rising floor (hellevator?) that whisked characters back and forth from the underworld.
This is replaced on the tour show by a sort of garage door Hellmouth that opens and closes and leaves any falling movement to our imaginations. It might not be that sexy, but it gets the job done. More impressively, the low-tech set design with a French Quarter feel, with ornate iron railings and balconies, shows that you don’t need projections or multiple set pieces to deliver an atmospheric set.
Especially not if you populate it with the seven-piece band flanking the set on both sides, apart from the lone drummer behind the stage and out of sight. The fate of playing too big an instrument, one supposes.
But it’s David Neumann’s choreography that really brings the scene to life, with a chorus that’s almost always in motion punctuating any sense of the story. Working as limbs of the same animal, they are especially magnetic in the underworld, where they serve both as witnesses to Orpheus’ treacherous quest for Eurydice and as Hades’ cadre of indentured industrial slaves.
Why do we tell this famous story over and over when we know how it ends, Hermes asks us to ask ourselves in the last few quiet moments of the show.
His answer, if we haven’t figured out what Mitchell wants us to take away, is not to dwell on the failure of history. Rather, we should focus on the possibility of what can be. What could be? If we had the chance to try. Or more instructive when we have the chance to try.
Nothing sad or tragic about that thought at all.
Hadestown continues through October 9 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For more information, call 800-982-2787 or visit thehobbycenter.org or Broadwayatthehobbycenter.com $35-on Demand rates.