It’s the most anticipated show of the 2017/2018 theatre season: the Canadian première of Hadestown at the Citadel Theatre, following a successful 2016 Off-Broadway run. When Hadestown finishes its run in Edmonton, it goes back to New York, this time for a run on Broadway.
As said in some of the opening lines of the musical, Hadestown is “An old tale from way back when”. Based on Anaïs Mitchell’s 2010 concept album that has now blossomed into a 135-minute musical, Hadestown is a retelling of the tragic ancient love legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Set during the Depression to folk and New Orleans-style jazz music, in Hadestown we see Eurydice tempted away from her husband’s love and music (although admittedly empty coffers) by Hades, who promises work, warmth, and food, and Orpheus’ desperate attempt to bring Eurydice back from Hadestown. It’s a Greek myth that you may know the ending of, but part of the enjoyment of seeing Hadestown is knowing the love stories are fleeting and hoping that maybe tonight is the night things turn out differently for the lovers.
From the opening moments of the musical, the onstage band – and especially Audrey Ochoa on trombone – sweeps the audience away to New Orleans, as if we’re attending a Bourbon Street concert, rather than a theatre production in Edmonton. The production plays to this, with its introduction of the musicians at the beginning of the second act in the same style as is done during jazz performances.
Every member of the 12-person cast is a stunning vocalist and brings such a lively energy to the show that it’s often easy to forget that we know a tragic ending is coming. Our guide and the story’s narrator is Hermes, conductor of souls to the afterlife, played by the charismatic Kingsley Leggs. Persephone, queen of the underworld and patron of spring, is Amber Gray. Amber brings a sense of fun to her role of Persephone, who spends spring and summer above ground, bringing fruit, wine and good times to the peasants before being brought back underground for fall and winter by her husband, Hades.
Having worked together in the 2016 Off-Broadway run of Hadestown, Amber and Patrick Page (in the role of Hades), have the heart-rending chemistry of a couple who were once in love, but now find that they no longer understand one another. I particularly loved the disgust and disbelief Amber brought to the song “Chant“. The vile with which she spits out the line, “In the coldest time of year, why is it so hot down here?” is impressive. Opposite Amber, Patrick Page as Hades is a pretty perfect embodiment of capitalism with his immaculate appearance, a controlled demeanour that gives the impression he is always scheming something, and complete knowledge of the power he holds and how to use it. Patrick’s rendition of “Hey, Little Songbird” is chilling in its portrayal of the vulnerable position poverty (or some other power imbalance) can place someone in, especially when there is someone with loser morals or an unethical agenda ready and waiting to take advantage of this person. This song was hard to watch, especially in a world where sexual assault and harassment is at the forefront of our attention with the #metoo movement.
As the pair of young lovers, T.V. Carpio (Eurydice) and Reeve Carney (Orpheus) are evenly matched opposites. T.V. plays Eurydice as a woman who’s had to be tough to survive and is relentlessly practical. As Orpheus, Reeve Carney wears his heart on his sleeve and is obsessed with his art. The score showcases the vocal range of both actors, with my favourite moments being when T.V. belts out love songs or Reeve’s tenor cuts through the musical’s deeper tones to deliver proclamations of his love for Eurydice.
The cast is rounded out by a four-person workers chorus (Vance Avery, Andrew Broderick, Tara Jackson, and Hal Wesley Rogers) whose voices and body percussion add a lot to the rhythm of the show (see “Chant“) and the Fates (Jewelle Blackman, Kira Guloien, and Evangelia Kambites) whose ethereal voices add an otherworldliness feel to the story.
In addition to bringing to life the Ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the story of Hadestown pits capitalism against art and love and is an exploration of our inner natures and how we behave in the toughest of situations. Hadestown asks the question: can love and art overcome fear and poverty? Orpheus, obsessed with crafting the perfect song, knows that winter every year is tough without adequate shelter and food, but thinks that his survival will come about by living a life dedicated to love and art, rather than material goods. While Eurydice appreciates Orpheus’ music and feels safe in his love, she’s also more practical and tries to store wood and food to get them through the winter, saying “Orpheus, all the pretty songs you sing/Ain’t gonna shelter us from the wind” (“Chant“). This tension is later part of how Hades convinces Eurydice to sell her soul and live in Hadestown, saying in “Hey, Little Songbird“, “Give him your hand, he’ll give you his hand-to-mouth”.
What stands out most about the musical’s commentary on capitalism is Hades doesn’t promise anything more than work and warmth to convince Eurydice to leave Orpheus for Hadestown. Through the song, “Why We Build the Wall“, we see the workers chorus brainwashed about their work by Hades, mindlessly repeating what he tells them about them, their work and their purpose – that they are better off than others, that they must protect what they have from others, and that by having work they are free. The implication is that work gives a person meaning, even if what the work itself doesn’t accomplish anything. Even Hades himself realizes that the foundry, power grid, and wall he’s had his employees build really doesn’t matter as much as his marriage to Persephone, which his pursuit of material goods has ruined.
As much as Hadestown is billed about Orpheus and Eurydice’s journey to Hades and back, the journey is primarily an internal one – to the point where Orpheus’ journey to Hades is absent from the musical. In Hadestown the characters must make decisions in impossible situations and battle with their internal dialogue as they face the consequences of their decisions. The repeated phrase, “Whatcha going to do when the chips are down, now that the chips are down” speaks to the idea that it’s easy to say you’ would do the right thing in a tough situation, but what really matters is how you act when that situation comes to pass. Despite saying she wouldn’t leave Orpheus, Eurydice does when times get hard. And despite saying he trusts her to follow him out of Hades, Orpheus still looks back to see if she’s still there, invoking Hades’ curse and condemning her to stay in Hades forever.
Whether you’re attending Hadestown for the incredible talent, to see it before it goes to Broadway, or for the rich social commentary Anaïs Mitchell has embedded in the lyrics, you won’t be disappointed.