There’s a reason why Greek myths, and their gods, continue to resonate and inspire through the ages. Classical deities – depicted as more “human” than their successors – both glorify and condemn all the great passions of human nature. Love, hate, jealousy, ambition, determination, trust and faith. But perhaps more than anything, by the mere act of telling and retelling their stories, we solidify the power and salvation of “the arts.”
Singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell was first inspired by two fervent mythological love affairs. The story of Hades, god of the underworld, and Persephone, his kidnapped queen, who would become the goddess of spring, summer, and fertility. And of demigod Orpheus (whose musical talent with the lyre rescued the Argonauts from the Sirens’ song) and Orpheus’ great human love, the beautiful and impoverished Eurydice. It’s no wonder that a singer-songwriter would feel compelled to write a play featuring Orpheus, history’s original vocalist hero whose godly power was his music. In her first version of Hadestown, she wrote all the music, lyrics and book. That was back in 2006.
Mitchell’s original, sung-through musical had several local runs in the northeast, but didn’t really go anywhere so she decided to release all those wonderful folk- and New Orleans jazz-style songs as a concept album in 2010. It went on to win a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album! Her next stroke of divine inspiration came when she joined director Rachel Chavkin in 2012 to rework the stage production, resulting in added songs and dialogue. The revamped, Chavkin-directed musical premiered Off-Broadway in 2016, then hit London, and Broadway in 2019 to major fanfare and recognition, winning eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score.
It took thirteen years, in all, for Mitchell’s original idea for a musical to come to full fruition. Perhaps she was inspired by the story of mythology’s first singer-songwriter, Orpheus, to persist toward her goal, no matter the obstacles, and to have faith. She might even have learned a lesson from his ultimate failure to save his soulmate by trusting in her vision of the future, and “never looking back.” HADESTOWN continues to move, bewitch and inspire NYC audiences on Broadway. Happily, South Floridians can now catch an equally excellent North American touring production presented by Broadway in Fort Lauderdale at Broward Center for the Performing Arts.
Can fantastical ancient love stories among gods and humans – narrated by Orpheus’ caretaker Hermes (the messenger god who also serves as our guide to the underworld) – speak to technology-obsessed humans of the 21st century? Maybe a message from the past is just what we need. If the techno overlord, wall-builder from Hell can ultimately reconcile with his beloved goddess of spring and greenery, maybe we, too, can find a way through all the divisiveness and insanity in our lives by turning off our cellphones and connecting, in person, to one another.
Director Chavkin thinks so. She calls Hadestown “wildly powerful” because it’s “about rebirth and the deep need to tell old stories anew in fellowship together … it is also about a community coming together and calling for change. As we’ve seen demands for necessary change from across the country – in the fight for racial justice and economic justice and environmental justice – I think the show’s central theme of imagining how the world could be will ring out particularly loudly.”
As in early Greek theater tradition, the story begins with a narrator to help us get oriented. Our narrator, Will Mann as Hermes (catch the tiny wings on his suit’s jacket sleeves) instantly grabs our attention with his commanding presence and thundering vocals (though he’s also adept at humorous asides). Hermes opens with “Once upon a time there was a railroad line…” and goes on to sing (with company) an “old song, old tale” about the story’s main characters in “Road to Hell – a tragic tale of a love that never dies.
Soon we’re immersed (awed and overwhelmed) by Hades’ underground factory town, a bleak post-apocalyptic setting clothed in the trappings of our own Great Depression. But oh how we can relate! The play’s recurring Greek chorus, comprised of three Fates (Marla Louissaint, Lizzie Markson, and Hannah Schreer) launches into “Any Way the Wind Blows,” depicting a shiver-inducing world of unpredictable natural disasters where no place is safe – all too reminiscent of our current climate crisis: “In the fever of a world in flames, In the season of the hurricanes, Flood will get you if the fire don’t, Any way the wind blows.”
Choreography by David Neumann, arrangements and orchestrations by Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose (along with music supervisor and vocal arranger Liam Robinson) turn even the most bleak and soulful numbers into an aesthetic, heart-throbbing joy to behold. Nostalgic scenic design by Broadway’s Hadestown set designer Rachel Hauck takes its cues from the Old French Quarter of New Orleans – complete with a much-utilized upper balcony – and perfectly matches the show’s Dixieland jazz vibe. You can’t miss the often shockingly bright and creative spotlighting of Bradley King’s lighting design, interspersed with ethereal blasts of smoke and shadows. Co-sound designers Kevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz keep it all pitch perfect, while costumes by Michael Krass (from threadbare poor to rich-and-fancy) only further enhance what will become, for many, a life-changing experience.
Of course, the actors are always key, and I commend Whitley Theatrical for their great casting selections. It’s hard to compete with an established Tony-winning lineup, but I must say this latest North American touring troupe more than lived up to the challenge while managing to make the roles their own.
Starting with the innocent young lovers who lie at the heart of the story (one demigod, one mortal, both dirt poor). It’s love at first sight for celestial singer-songwriter Orpheus (beatific voiced J. Antonio Rodriguez) who attempts to win over the object of his affection, the beauteous but world-weary Eurydice (triple-threat powerhouse Amaya Braganza), by promising to make the world beautiful for her through a song, “Come Home with Me.” In “Wedding Song,” he adds an ideal vision of their future together.
As winter arrives, Queen Persephone (Lana Gordon, reprising her Broadway role with electrifying pizzazz), the goddess of spring and summer, reluctantly boards the train back to her underground domain where marital strife awaits. King Hades (strikingly portrayed by Matthew Patrick Quinn, the ultimate deep-voiced villain) feels under-appreciated and, unlike his wife, holds no sympathy for the soul-sucking, nose-to-the-grindstone degraded existence of his enslaved labor force as he manically pursues his “symphony of machinery” ambitions. Everyone – from Hermes to the two couples and three Fates – weigh in on whether wealth or misery awaits those embarking on a one-way ride to “Way Down Hadestown.”
Additional song highlights (though they are all beautiful and memorable) include Hades’ offer of material sustenance to Eurydice when the chips are down – versus hope and faith in her lover’s ability to provide a brighter future – in their “Hey Little Songbird” duet. Act 1 ends with Eurydice drafted into the bleak workforce of “Why We Build the Wall” with false claims of freedom for those within, while keeping the “enemy of poverty” at bay.
Act II begins with a far more joyous and rebellious entr’acte as we watch dashingly quirky Persephone serve up moonshine memories to workers at a secret speakeasy where she’s known as “Our Lady of the Underground.” But first she takes time out to introduce the audience to the incredible band whose music we’ve enjoyed as they played, nonstop, from both sides onstage. (Even better than some famous Old Quarter New Orleans venues I’d visited many moons ago.) Applause goes to music coordinator David Lai, conductor/pianist Eric King, assistant conductor/cellist Kely Pinheiro, Clare Armenante on violin, Michiko Egger on guitar, Emily Fredrickson on trombone/glockenspiel, Calvin Jones on double bass, and drums/percussion by Eladio Rojas.
Sadly, the Fates’ visions and opinions in this story are disproportionately fatalistic. When Orpheus attempts to rescue Eurydice, they advise that he give up in “Nothing Changes.” But more kind-hearted Persephone is touched by Orpheus’ song of despair and invites him to sing for Hades. “Chant II” is a version of his love song to Eurydice which rekindles Hades’ love for his wife. They reconnect in a touching couples dance, and he is ultimately convinced to offer the young lovers a means of escape.
Although foreshadowed from the start, I won’t reveal how it all ends to those who may have missed Classical Mythology 101. Suffice it to say, the Hadestown saga is filled with many more beautiful and evocative songs that actually stay with you after the show is over. It ends as it began, in a reprise of “Road to Hell.” Though now Hermes’ meaning is a lot more clear: “It’s a sad song. It’s a sad tale, it’s a tragedy … But we sing it anyway.” The musical’s tagline of COME SEE HOW THE WORLD COULD BE is a poignant reminder for all of us to do better, be better. And to continue to support our most beautiful and vibrant conduit of speaking truth to power, the arts.
HADESTOWN, presented by Bank of America Broadway in Fort Lauderdale, is playing through January 21 at the Au-Rene Theater of The Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Avenue, Fort Lauderdale 33312. For Hadestown (Touring) tickets, go to www.browardcenter.org or call 954-462-0222.
Hailing from New York City, but now a long-time resident of Fort Lauderdale, Mindy Leaf has worked as a professional writer and editor for over 30 years. Her byline has appeared in both national and international magazines, including Omni, New York Magazine, Showboats International, Power & Motoryacht, Yachting, Fine Dining, Jewish Monthly and various literary publications. She is the author of “The Working Mom's Handbook” and childrens book, “Things That Count!” and was series editor for Commuter Press. She’s worked as a restaurant critic for Florida's MyCity magazine network and was senior staff writer at Artblend, an international fine-art quarterly. She particularly enjoyed writing a weekly opinion blog for LA’s Jewish Journal called “The Examined Life.” Mindy has headed a bi-
weekly theater column at Around Town for over a decade and is delighted to also contribute her reviews to South Florida Theater Magazine.