Hadestown: A Folk Opera

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Hadestown first saw the light of day as a concept album put together by singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell in 2010. Even then, it was advertised as a folk opera, though it hadn’t been staged in an official capacity. I listened to the album when it first came out, and it was love at first listen. For six years I listened and envisioned how the musical narrative might look if it came to life on stage. Finally, yesterday, I no longer had to imagine.

The New York Theatre Workshop has put together a production of Hadestown running until July 31st. Yesterday, I sat in the front row, with the audience surrounding the circular stage, like a gargantuan conversation pit. The unorthodox set-up provided the actors with the freedom to move through the rows of audience members as we twisted and turned to watch them. This lent the performance an intimacy and physicality that would not have been achieved with a traditional stage.

Smoke billowed from the ceiling, catching on the rays of light that strategically shone on various actors. The faint scent of lavender and herbs wafted through the air throughout the entire performance. The best way to describe the setting of the production would be a cross between a magical garden and seedy 1920s jazz club (or speakeasy with live entertainment). It felt like a historical performance, a phantasmagorical performance, a steampunk performance.

This, of course, was more than suitable for Hadestown. The folk opera, to my mind, takes place in an alternate universe Depression-era US town. Orpheus and Eurydice fall in love, but times are hard for all, and Eurydice grows hungry. She is soon seduced by Hades, King of Hadestown. It’s the only place in town that has jobs – but it’s a one-way ticket to Hadestown. As they sing, “Once you go, you don’t come back!” Orpheus follows to rescue her, and…well, I don’t need to tell you what happens next. And as they sing, “It’s a sad song, but we sing it anyway.”

In addition’s to Anais Mitchell’s impressive bevy of songs, the play added several new ones to tie the narrative together more cohesively. Along with Hermes’ narration guiding us along, the story becomes deeper, more meaningful. Small details that I hadn’t noticed before emerged, such as that Hades and Persephone’s love is starting to sour (but sweetens again, thankfully, by the end of the play), or that Hades is genuinely conflicted about whether to let Orpheus go or not. Some of the new numbers are less impressive than others (and most less impressive than the original album) but everything is strung together in such a way that structures the story nicely.

A surprising standout performance of the night was Chris Sullivan’s Hermes. I didn’t expect much from the Hermes character going in, as he has nothing more than a bit part in the original concept album, but here his role has been expanded to a much more integral part that includes narration. Sullivan’s Hermes, with his four-piece suit, bowler hat, painted nails, and suit chain, plays Hermes with soul and roguish charm. He embodies his character with every twirl, every step, every twitch of his eyebrow. He’s alluring and magnetic and strange, a lovable rascal, everything you want in your Depression-era bohemian Hermes.

The other standout performance of the night was Nabiyah Be’s Eurydice. Short, tiny, and girlish, with a cloud of curly dark hair, Be’s Eurydice exudes an innocent charm characteristic of an ingenue. She twirls her yellow skirt with gusto and dances with an adorable exuberance. The way she stands up on her tiny tiptoes to speak to Orpheus is as endearing as it gets. When she smiles, you smile too, and then you fall in love with her. Her radiant beauty makes Orpheus’s immediate fall for her completely believable. And her voice is beautiful; a surprising strength emerging from such a small person! To be honest, if I had one complaint about the original album, it would be Anais Mitchell’s voice, which is too high-pitched and nasally for my liking, so having someone else in the part of Eurydice only made it better.

Amber Gray’s Persephone and Patrick Page’s Hades were…surprises. They grew on me by the end of the night, but when I first saw them I couldn’t help being a little disappointed. Aesthetically, they weren’t what I had always pictured. Persephone was older than I had always envisioned her, and Page’s Hades was less a King of the Underworld than a Texas lawman, complete with shiny belt buckle and cowboy boots. He’s also much older than I pictured, and he comes across as both suave and sleazy (and more than a little ominous). However, his deep, chalky baritone was perfect. In the original album, Greg Brown does an chillingly menacing Hades, and Patrick Page does not disappoint in that aspect. As for Amber Gray, she does a wonderfully lively Persephone, though her interpretation of the character is wildly different than my own.

Both actors grew on me by the end of the night, and my initial disappointment with them was certainly not their fault. They both gave incredible performances. But I have been enamored of Hades and Persephone since I was a little girl, and I therefore had highly specific images of them in my head. If I set this inherent bias aside, however, I can say without a doubt that Gray and Page were a fantastic Persephone and Hades.

The Fates, played by Lulu Fall, Jessie Shelton, and Shaina Taub, began the night’s performance, and they set the mood by marching onstage with three antique lamps swinging from their hands. Their harmony, the way they pick up on and join in on each other’s singing, is seamless. The three manage to paint the Fates as, alternately, both menacing and benevolent.

And now, for the only performance of the night that was slightly disappointing: Damon Daunno’s Orpheus. I know, I know, it’s hard to live up to Justin Vernon’s Orpheus. But here’s the thing: Orpheus is supposed to be so good, his singing so beautiful, that he sways even the cold Hades’ heart. Duanno just couldn’t convey that. First of all, he looked like a cross between a hipster and a frat boy rather than the carefree poet he’s supposed to be. Second, his voice is…unimpressive at best. He just can’t carry a tune as well as he should, and given that some of the most beautiful, powerful songs on the album are sung by Orpheus, it’s definitely noticeable. He has his moments, and there are some lines that he manages to make lovely, but they are few and far between. All the other performances had me nearly in tears; Damon Daunno just left me ambivalent. Perhaps when I see him again he’ll do a better job.

And yes, that is me admitting that I have already purchased tickets to see this again. I came home yesterday at half past midnight, and the first thing I did was go on the website to purchase tickets for July 1st. Even before the show was over I knew I couldn’t let it be a once in a lifetime experience. And after July 1st, I’m going to hope and wish with all my heart that Hadestown is staged again, perhaps this time on a bigger stage (hear me, Oh Gods of Broadway)!

Hadestown was not everything I had ever dreamed it would be: it was more. It was different. It defied my expectations. It improved upon them. I was awed the entire time; I literally could not stop smiling.  At the end I clapped so long and so hard my arms hurt. I nearly cried several times because the performances were so raw, so genuine, so beautiful. And these were actors performing songs that I had been in love with for six years! It was an entirely emotional experience for me, and one that I won’t soon forget.