What the devil? Hadestown is long on music but short on drama and good sense

Hadestown album

The 2010 album version of Hadestown

Hadestown is a new musical tracing some very old stories—namely those of Orpheus and Eurydice along with Persephone and Hades—and I know just who might like it. A friend of mine lived in New Orleans for a few years while teaching English there, and he had a passion for that place where a shot of alcohol is never far away, cemeteries thrust the dead up into plain view, and the living are always likely to burst into music or sway into a simple dance. Hadestown, largely created by Anaïs Mitchell and now in previews at New York Theater Workshop, is a good deal like that.

One of the characters is a cool cat in a sporty cap who’s prone to stamping his leg in time with the music and who serves as our narrator; he’s the kind of good-time guy who might chat you up on a street corner or in a club. Music, mostly folk- or jazz-inflected, pervades Hadestown from beginning to end; though some of the text is spoken, there’s nary a moment that lacks accompaniment. The show’s band includes a trombone, hardly a pure symbol of New Orleans—Don Giovanni’s “band” includes trombones—yet it fits the picture and it sounds right, and the instrument’s association with doom in Mozart’s opera isn’t out of place here either. The characters’ habit of resorting to drinks, sometimes dispensing them to the audience as well, accords with the city on the delta, as does the impromptu bar that playgoers encounter on their way into the auditorium. Even the tree that rises, sinewy and towering, in one corner of the set and spreads its branches across the ceiling, like skeleton fingers, reminds me a little of Louisiana’s swamp cypresses, though it doesn’t literally look like them.

This show, which was developed with and directed by Rachel Chavkin and which has been in progress since 2006, ought to come off as some kind of wonder, and to judge from Twitter responses it’s just that for many; one tweet I saw breathlessly called it “rad.” But the Harry Cohn test tells me otherwise. Cohn was the head of Columbia Pictures for many years, and by one account he judged a film by whether he found himself squirming in his seat before it was over. I didn’t squirm during Hadestown, but after about 20 minutes I thought it hadn’t gotten very far, and by the time it was over, it felt a good deal longer than its actual duration of two hours and something. Hadestown is diffuse and somewhat mind-blurring; our cool-cat narrator has been aggrandized by being named Hermes (not wrongly, but there’s no need for it either), as the chorus has been by being named the Fates (for no very good reason). And yet the show is strangely literal-minded on occasion. Example: Eurydice (performed very affectingly by Nabiyah Be) is described early on as “hungry,” and if something else was said it escaped me, so I took her to be youthfully ambitious, eager for bigger and better things, something like that. Wrong—it turns out that she just isn’t getting enough to eat, and she’s tempted by the underworld because everyone there gets all the food they want, in return for all the work that can be gotten out of them. It’s an oddball labor camp, both desirable and forbidding; apparently, the wall around the place (which, like countless other things, is the subject of a song) serves both to keep in the inmates and to keep out everyone else. The idea is nutty, as if the desperate would never think of simply dying to get in.

In this and other ways, there’s something hazy and dreamlike about Hadestown. I’m pretty sure there’s a literal smoke machine running somewhere backstage, because you can see the beams of light from the overhead instruments. That’s one of the show’s many elements of artifice—it looks as if you’re in a smoky bar. (Come to think of it, that’s also one of the show’s recreations of a mythic past, given that smoky bars essentially don’t exist anymore.) But everything here seems a tad fuzzy. I kept trying to focus on what the lyrics were saying, what the staging was telling me, what the choreography meant, and substance kept eluding my grasp.

The show was choreographed by David Neumann, who has created some wonderfully thought-provoking, if sometimes perplexing, post-modern dance pieces. What he does here is deliberately very low-key. Example: Late in the show there’s a moment where Hades and Persephone are reconciled, and, as I believe the narrator flatly informs us, “They dance.” Hope springs eternal—I watched eagerly to see how their movements would dramatize this development. Would the dance express joy and exhilaration? Would it be like hot make-up sex? Alas, it was very ordinary, the sort of okay-that’s-behind-us thing you and your partner might do if you’d resolved a minor dispute over, say, which Netflix show to watch next and you decided to take a turn on the floor before leaving. Maybe Neumann’s style here should be called vernacular or demotic; quite likely a lot of thought went into it, and quite likely a rationale could be given for it. But it just seemed plain to me.

The same is true for other potentially big moments in the story. If the songs of Orpheus have any potency at all, as legend and the action of the show tell us they do, shouldn’t those he delivers in front of Hades stand out in some way? But they don’t. Though they’re pretty, they have no more to offer than anything else in the show.

That’s probably the key to the whole thing: an enormous amount of creative and technical care has been devoted to the goal of making Hadestown appear unassuming and down-to-earth, as if it were something you might find after wandering into the right bar on a good night. The very seating—NYTW has reconfigured its auditorium for this show—is a jumbled assortment of straight-backed chairs, looking as if they’d been picked up here and there over the years. Now and then, the performers resort to handheld or stand-mounted microphones in an intriguing variety of styles (yes, if you care to look closely, you can admire the seemingly random mix of microphone designs in this show). Yet there’s no need for these, because everybody’s wearing a wireless head mike, so it’s all a matter of looking—but only some of the time—like a nightclub show. Likewise, Orpheus is slinging a four-string guitar, not for any obvious musical reason but because the classical lyre was often depicted with four strings.

Creating the impression of something real in unreal circumstances (to adapt a definition of acting) is what Hadestown is after. For many people, the effort will succeed—they’ll feel transported for a while, to a place where the mythic mingles with the everyday, as you may find in New Orleans. Everyone in the cast is compelling. Patrick Page’s gravelly growl, in the role of Hades, is delicious. Amber Gray has spark and a tangy presence as Persephone. Damon Daunno has a bright silvery tone as Orpheus. And Chris Sullivan may be the most likable and pleasing of all, as our host, tour guide, MC, bar pal, narrator, or—if you prefer—Hermes.

If good music and a lot of it is all you’re after, you’ll find it here. But a narrative music-theater piece ought to do things that can be ignored by a concept album, which is what Hadestown once was. For me, the show is clever in many ways, but it doesn’t really say much. It’s too much and yet not enough. It’s far from lifeless, yet it never seems authentically alive; I never believed that, on any given night, the trombone player, say, would be given another eight bars for a solo.

For me, the greatest truth about Hadestown is its illustration of the evanescence of music. Its atmosphere stayed with me, but very little of the words and music did.

(For the record, I attended a late preview. The show’s official opening is May 23, and it runs through July 3. Information is here.)

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