Vermont folkie Anaïs Mitchell has been tinkering with Hadestown, her stirring Americana-ization of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, for nearly two decades. The much-revised, multi-Tony Award winning version that ran for 11 months—right up until the pandemic shuttered Broadway in March of 2020—came more than a dozen years after she’d first put the show on its feet. In the interim came Hadestown-the-concept album, as well as a handful of songs first released on her other albums that would later find their way into the musical.
Hadestown has reopened on Broadway, but that hasn’t delayed the arrival of its first-rate roadshow, for which the Kennedy Center is the first stop on an itinerary with dates through the spring of 2023. That’s a cause for celebration. This show, more than most, with its meditation on the cyclical nature of joy and sorrow, is meant to travel.
It also dramatizes a literal—well, mythological—journey to hell and back, as callow lyre-slinger Orpheus resolves to “rescue” his beloved Eurydice after she chooses sunless subsistence living below over starvation above. “Give him your hand; he’ll give you his hand-to-mouth,” as Hades, the Republican of our piece, sings to her in “Hey Little Songbird.”
Hadestown’s ancient origins will explain why it seems such a suspiciously ripe metaphor for so many things—including the return of live theater after an unprecedented drought, at least for those of us willing to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. “Livin’ It Up on Top,” one of Act One’s most upbeat numbers, introduces the concept of Persephone’s six-months-outta-twelve marriage to Hades, who, in the waning years of their love affair, has turned the underworld into a giant fossil-fuel-powered factory built on the backs of laborers whom he’s convinced to be grateful for their low wages and seven-day work week. (Kimberly Marable, who was one of the three truth-telling Fates in the show’s initial Broadway run, has moved up to the more prominent role of Persephone in the touring company.) When she’s with Hades down below, it’s a cruel winter up here; when she returns to the surface, the sun shines. There is also the Act One finale, “Why We Build the Wall,” wherein Hades’ under-educated subjects obediently parrot back to him how isolationist policies will keep poverty away. George W. Bush was president—Donald Trump just a reality-TV clown—when Mitchell wrote that song.
Mitchell’s lyrics are pithy, and her music is enveloping and propulsive throughout, relying more heavily on brass and percussion than guitar, despite Orpheus’ mastery of the lyre. (Carrot-topped Nicholas Barasch is our Orpheus, and his wiry but never shrill falsetto has no trouble filling the Kennedy Center opera house, which is more than double the seating capacity of Hadestown’s Broadway venue.) The onstage seven-piece orchestra is in plain view, populating a set (by scenic designer Rachel Hauck) that seems inspired by New Orleans, though much of the lyrical imagery evokes the Rust Belt.
The themes under investigation here—the soul-killing drudgery of factory work, the tender negotiation of preserving a marriage long after the excitement of early love has dissipated, the use of “economic insecurity” to cover up the electorate’s uglier impulses—suggest this all might’ve come from the sainted Broadway diva who occupied the Walter Kerr Theater for 14 months immediately before Hadestown moved in, one Bruce Springsteen. But in fact, this is the rare Broadway spectacle wholly written, directed, and developed by women. (Director Rachel Chavkin has worked with Mitchell on the play for nearly a decade.)
Rounding out the cast of the touring Hadestown is Levi Kreis, playing the narrator Hermes. Kreis is White and decades younger than Broadway’s Tony-winning Hermes, André de Shields, but he makes a persuasively weary (and vocally nimble) Hermes. Kevyn Morrow, a commanding Black actor, takes the place of Broadway’s Patrick Page as the musical’s (somewhat sympathetic) villain Hades, preserving the racial balance of the cast. Both are excellent. In fact, there isn’t a weak hand on the factory floor.