By Walter Rutledge
Recently I had the extreme pleasure to see the Broadway smash hit Hadestown at the Walter Kerr Theater. The 2019 eight-time Tony Award winning musical is still wowing audiences with Anais Mitchell’s incredible lyric music score and touching book featuring dual love stories. Before we talk about Hadestown lets first have a Greek mythology tutorial.
Orpheus is the son of Apollo and the muse of epic poetry Calliope. His golden voice and lyre have the power to charm all living things and inanimate objects including rocks and stones.
Eurydice is a beautiful young girl who is the love interest of Orpheus. In a moment of weakness to escape poverty, hunger and the cold weather she goes to work for King Hades in Hadestown.
Hades is the ruler of the underworld and the King of the dead. With his brothers Zeus and Poseidon, the triumvirate overthrow their father Cronus and draw lots to divide the earth amongst them. Hades had the worst draw and was made lord of the underworld, ruling over the dead. He is a greedy god who is greatly concerned with increasing the number of his subjects.
Persephone is the queen of the underworld, and the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of harvest and fertility. Hades fell in love with Persephone then abducts and marries her. By arrangement she spend half of the year with Hades in the underworld causing fall and winter, then return to her mother bringing spring and summer to the earth.
Hermes is the fleet-footed guide, and herald and messenger of the Gods. He (In this production she) is of the cleverest and most mischievous of the twelve Olympian gods. Hermes is the conductor of souls to the underworld.
The Fates are three Goddesses who together determine the destinies of mortals, measuring their lifespans and appointing their suffering.
The Chorus sang, spoke and danced in unison in classic Greek theater. They often represented the voice of the citizens and commented on the action of the characters, while building empathy between the characters and the audience.
Set in a club-like environment in the heart of New Orleans Hermes soulfully reminds us of the thin line between life and death as she dances joyfully with an ornate black umbrella used at a funeral second line or jazz funeral. Lillias White is sensational as Hermes. Part narrator, part storyteller and part griot, White is 100 percent captivating. From the moment she enters the stage Hermes (White) takes us on a journey to Hell, in this case Hadestown, and back- and we go willingly.
As the tragic tale unfolds Orpheus (Reeve Carney) is instantly smitten by the beautiful Eurydice (Solea Pfeiffer) and immediately begins to seduce her through song. Carney’s clear and expressive tenor voice compliments Mitchell’s heartfelt storytelling lyrics and simple yet compelling melodies. All songs are worthy of the son of Calliope.
Throughout Act one the chorus keeps the show fast pasted by moving, adjusting and manipulating props and set pieces with a utilitarian naturalness. Chairs and tables move, reappear or change function effortlessly. David Neuman’s choreography and staging are Euclidean in its focus and directness and are an important visual and storytelling element.
Seated on a Bourbon Street style balcony complete with spiral staircase (a “N’awlins” version of a Promethean perch) is King Hades (Phillip Boykin) and Queen Persephone (Betty Who). The pair silently observe the unfolding “comedy of errors” below them. Finally, when Hades descends the staircase, his imposing entrance is a statement.
Phillip Boykin- Hadestown
Boykin has a bigger than life operatic sized presence, which allowed him to command the stage in stillness. He stood motionless clad in all black with a full-length leather coat, black silver heeled cowboy boots and a pair of oversize black wraparound sunglasses. The King of the Dead was so convincing I kept waiting for the ghost of Isaac Hayes to appear and say, “He’s a bad mothah shut your mouth”. And when he does speak his bass/baritone voice was thunderous.
If act one can be described as fantastic theater, then act two was phenomenal! Here we join the King and Queen in their underworld realm and follow Orpheus as he tries to free Eurydice from Hadestown.
Scenic designer Rachel Hauck transported us to a dark and atmospheric place. The chorus, clad in leather look overalls with matching head gear that resembled WW ll retro style Leather Aviator Helmets complete with googles, were chic hellish attire perfect for work in the mechanized fires of Hadestown. It had me wondering which couturier was residing in King Hades kingdom and could I get a pair of those overalls above ground.
Neuman outdid himself here. His Hades chorus moved on a revolving platform with daring austerity. The swinging lamps were visually arresting and as they passed above seats in the orchestra the “fourth wall” instantly disappeared.
Act two defines the stories of the pair of lovers at very different crossroads. The question is whose love will survive? Even if you have seen Hadestown you haven’t seen it with this exceptional cast. And if you haven’t seen it, you are in for a true theatrical experience.