Theater review: ‘Hadestown’ clothes ancient myths in modern garments

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

In “Hadestown” — Anais Mitchell’s gorgeously entwined telling of the tales of Orpheus and Eurydice and Hades and Persephone — the seasons are out of joint. “It’s either blazing hot or freezing cold,” sings a shivering and hungry Eurydice in her opening number, “Any Way the Wind Blows.”

That Eurydice’s lament pays tribute to Jonathan Larson’s doomed Mimi (“Rent”) is a signal that our heroine and her sweetly innocent suitor are about to embark on a blistering journey that will not end happily. “It’s a sad song,” declares the narrator, Hermes, right up front. “We gonna sing it anyway.”

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

“Hadestown” — the Broadway epic that swept the 2019 Tony Awards and arrived at the Fox Theatre on Tuesday night with the speed and force of a bullet train from hell — is a stunning work of art that comments on the crises of our time — climate change, the building of walls “to keep us free” — with heart-searing precision.

Mitchell, who penned the whole package (music, lyrics and book) is an astonishing talent with a vast understanding of jazz, blues, rock. As imagined by the author, her director-collaborator, Rachel Chavkin, and their stellar design team, this luminous hell looks and sounds like time-steeped New Orleans (blaring trombones, wrought-iron balconies, underground speakeasies). In the musical’s glorious score, we hear echoes of everything from Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” (”Hey, Little Songbird”) to Joni Mitchell’s introspective musings (”Flowers”).

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Credit: T. Charles Erickson

I have not seen the Broadway version of “Hadestown,” but a careful listen to the cast recording suggests this touring production may come near to surpassing the original. In the role of Hermes (created for Broadway’s Andre De Shields), Nathan Lee Graham gives an indelible performance as our slithering and seductive guide and provocateur. He’s taken the beautiful Orpheus (Chibueze Ihuoma) under his wing, and goads him to engage with the edgy and dismissive Eurydice (Courtney Lauster).

Looking down on this scene are the king and queen of the underworld, Hermes and Persephone (Brit West), the one-time goddess of spring who finds herself nearing obsolescence but imbued with a powerful thirst for wine (”Livin’ It Up On Top”). Mann’s sinister Hades and West’s debauched Persephone are the loud and lusty foils to Ihuoma’s angelic Orpheus and Lauster’s cooly despairing Eurydice.

While Mann doesn’t always hit the mark — his words were a bit hard to discern at the outset — and West has a tendency to overplay the part, Ihuoma and Lauster are heartbreaking as the tragic myth-fits, who almost escape the darkness, but can’t quite. As Hermes tells us, we know how the story will end, but we watch it again and again, hoping for some last-minute salvation.

Throughout this material, the proverbial circles of hell are a central motif. Words and images repeat, and repeat. The design scheme — Rachel Hauck’s sets, Michael Krass’s costumes, Bradley King’s lighting — reinforce the structure. The town of Hades is accessed via train, and the portal is a gaping mouth (or furnace or abyss) that swallows the condemned with shrill finality. (The device reminds me yet again of “Sweeney Todd.”)

The orchestra populates the stage (rather than the pit), joined by the three Fates (the excellent Dominique Kempf, Cecilia Trippiedi and Nyla Watson) and a chorus of strong-armed, muscular, workers — the human machines that fuel the dirty work of Hades.

Speaking of that bedlam, Mitchell does a masterful job of weaving in the political, without being too heavy-handed. How clever to make Hades responsible for upsetting the natural rhythms of the planet. While the song about the wall may remind you of a certain former president, it was actually written more than a decade ago: Mitchell began work on “Hadestown” in 2006, seeing it through variations incarnations from concept album to off-Broadway production to the current iteration.

Her prescience makes her something of a modern-day oracle. Without question, “Hadestown” is one of the better musicals of the last quarter-century. One would be wise to hear what it has to say. For it’s not just Orpheus and Eurydice we weep for. It’s the future of the planet as we know it. If the gods can’t help us, who can?



7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. Sunday. $36-$169. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 855-285-8499,

Bottom line: A remarkable musical retelling of classic myths