By Liz Nicholls, .ca
The musical/ folk opera that returns to Edmonton in the thrilling touring Broadway production onstage at the Jube this week will take you to Hell and back.
And all along that eerie, high-stakes route through darkness, you’ll be warmed, and chilled, by a feverish dream — of love, of loss, of how to live in a world that’s “hard and getting harder all the time.”
Yes, I say “returns” to us — in re-designed form. Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown, a marvellously imaginative and resonant theatrical creation 13 years in the making with director Rachel Chavkin, has been here before. In a 2017 workshop production at the Citadel that was its Canadian premiere — after its 2010 concept album origins, its 2016 Off-Broadway incarnation, and before Broadway and 14 Tony nominations and awards as best musical and best original score. As the personable, worldly wise god Hermes (the terrific Will Mann, in a snazzy silver suit), our narrator, tells us in song, “how to get to Hadestown, ya have to take the long way down.” Theatre artists get that.
At the Citadel Hadestown happened on an open stage, Depression era minimalist, with a huge bare tree across which the passing seasons played in light (lighting genius Bradley King) and double revolves dominated by the train track to hell. This time Rachel Hauck’s beautiful design locates us in an atmospherically smoky sepia-tinted cafe club, taking its location cue from the New Orleans jazz that infuses the score, along with folk, pop, blues, and musical theatre flavours (that hint at Rent, for example). So, distressed walls, wood, and a wrought-iron balcony from which Hades and his wife Persephone in shadow survey the action above the ground. King’s stunning lighting creates painterly effects in a domed, colour-saturated world. That’s where we find our musician hero Orpheus in his bus-boy gig, wiping off tables. And that’s where Eurydice, shivering in her meagre coat, arrives asking for a match.
There’s a new (to us) informality about the setting; the cast gathers and engages with us at the beginning in a way that didn’t happen before. Hermes performs for us; so does Persephone, who looks for allies among us.
Mitchell’s narrative inspiration is, as Hermes puts it, “an old tale from way back when.” That’s the Greek myth of Orpheus, the career singer-songwriter who ventures into the Underworld, the kingdom of the dead (or “the dead to the world, anyway”), to retrieve his lost love Eurydice. And he actually wins a dispensation from Hades, the reigning monarch of that subterranean realm. Orpheus can lead Eurydice back, provided he doesn’t look back.
What Mitchell and director Chavkin make of the myth — in luscious songs and stunning staging, respectively — is a contemporary/vintage musical with two intertwined love stories, both troubled. One is the story of Orpheus and his mission to the Underworld, a journey ingeniously set forth in swinging industrial lights. The other is Hades and his part-time consort Persephone. She spends half the year underground in the stronghold of the “king on the chromium throne” while the world above congeals in the cold, and half the year above ground where her annual arrival “with a suitcase full of summertime” is a celebration of greenery, flowers, wine, light, music, as per her song Living It Up On Top.
Hadestown is about music and artistic creation; it alights on romantic idealism, climate change, capitalism, political populism with its fear and hatred of “the other.” It is an unusual achievement, masterfully set forth onstage in Chavkin’s production. And it begins in the thought that Orpheus, the penniless artist obsessed with writing the perfect song, sees “the world as it could be, not as it is.” Eurydice, “no stranger to the wind,” falls in love despite herself. Cold, starving, pursued by the Fates (“whatcha gonna do when the chips are down?” they sing provokingly), she can’t help leaning into the pragmatic. Can the promise of the heart stand up to the urgent demands of the belly?
Wintry privations in a world that’s “dark and getting darker all the time,” have made Eurydice wary that we can have “the world we dream about,” and susceptible to the proposition — security in return for soul-sucking labour in his factory — offered by Hades the ruthless oligarch of the heated, prosperous capitalist stronghold underground.
The magic of the piece, as you’ll know if you saw the production at the Citadel in 2017, is the imaginative way, as myths do, it speaks to the moment. When Hades, in his ribcage-rattling bass notes, sang Why We Build The Wall at the very moment that Trump had been unleashed on the world, it was if Mitchell had just written that powerful 10-year-old (!) anthem to hanging on to what you have. “The enemy is poverty. And the wall keeps out the enemy.” It continues to speak to the barricading of privilege, of course. This time the Fates seem to aim, with uncanny precision, at this very year of no return. “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.” Eurydice is on it, from personal experience. “It’s either blazing hot or freezing cold…. Any way the wind blows.” How could this not be about Now?
The band, seven strong, remains onstage, which seems vital to the sheer dramatic vitality of the piece (Edmonton-based trombonist Audrey Ochoa delivers a smashing opening riff). And this new touring cast make the roles vividly their own. Rodriguez is an endearing naif of an Orpheus, who thinks he can change the world with his art. And Braganza is an unusually feisty and resistant Eurydice, vocally and physically.
As Hades, with his rumbling bass voice, Matthew Patrick Quinn in his long black coat and shades, is a chillier, angrier Hades than Patrick Page, who had a veneer of suavity about him that was almost seductive. But the character he creates is compelling and scary; Hades knows how to make an entrance. And Lana Gordon’s Persephone, the desperate party girl who rails against her marital imprisonment with a wild, charismatic energy, has a trapped-between-worlds eccentricity that makes her electrifying onstage.
David Neumann’s choreography is startlingly original in the way it creates movement that is never circumscribed by the notion of ‘dance’ — whether for the ensemble numbers or for the worker’s chorus, trapped on the revolve, who get a movement lexicon of slashing diagonals, the repetitive motion of labourers, riveting and hammering in their servitude. How do you get to Hadestown? By last-ditch choice, through the open jaws of a sort of giant steam shovel.
The finale of a production that reaches out to us, across the footlights — including an acoustic toast to solidarity — gives the floor to Hermes. He reminds us why we revisit stories, tragedies and sad songs that “we sing anyway.”
It’s a beautiful and moving tribute to what art tries to do. You shouldn’t miss your chance to go to hell.
Broadway Across Canada touring production
Created by: Anaïs Mitchell, developed with Rachel Chavkin
Directed by: Rachel Chavkin
Starring: Amaya Braganza, J. Antonio Rodriguez, Lana Gordon, Will Mann, Matthew Patrick Quinn
Where: Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium
Running: through Sunday