Anaïs Mitchell (Music, Lyrics & Book)
Sometimes, there simply are not enough superlatives to do justice.
During the Jewish Seder, there is a section recounting all the blessings and miracles the Israelites have received; and after each is recited, those gathered around the festival table say, “Dayenu,” “It would have been enough.”
If the current touring Hadestown at BroadwaySF’s Orpheum Theatre had only Nicolas Barasch with his falsetto-stretching tenor voice, “Dayenu.” If as Orpheus he were only joined by even one (much less four) of the other principals who each brings incredible vocal powers and a jaw-dropping persona to the stage and story, “Dayenu.” If they were all only lucky enough to have one of the most striking lighting designs to hit a local stage in recent memory (Bradley King) or if they only had the trombone of Audrey Ochoa or the percussion of Anthony Ty Johnson as part of the outstanding seven-person, on-stage orchestra, “Dayenu.” But lucky for the Orpheum audience of Anaïs Mitchell’s (music, lyrics, and book) 2019 Hadestown, this winner of eight Tony Awards has all of this and much more to make every minute of the one hundred eighty minutes fully eye-popping, energizing, and engrossing. “Dayenu.”
Set in a futuristic period when climate change has left the world’s population in poverty, Hadestown is a mash-up of two of ancient Greece’s most enduring love myths, one between the mortals Orpheus and Eurydice and one between the gods Hades and Persephone. Hermes – the herald of the Greek gods who can move freely both among the morals and the divine – serves as both our narrator and an intervener in the action at critical points of the story. Levi Kreis brings a combination of nightclub M.C., television evangelist, and Hollywood idol to the role of Hermes, introducing the story with a huge smile and with a voice that cuts through the air with an edge sharp and alerting. He entones, “It’s a sad song … but we sing it anyway,” adding in spoken aside, “Maybe it will be different this time.” His Hermes scoots smoothly in and around the stage with his voice often sounding like a sung, Sunday morning sermon, holding onto final syllables to ensure he gives us plenty of time to let his messages sink in.
Hermes hovers protectively around a boyish and red-haired poet, songwriter, and waiter named Orpheus, whom Hermes explains, “I took him under my wing and there he stayed, until one day.” That one day is when Orpheus bumps into a street-poor, hunger-afflicted Eurydice. This also-poor Romeo is totally love-struck.
As he sings his song of “Come Home With Me” to a not-yet-impressed Eurydice, we get a first introduction to the sparkling, heaven-reaching, tenor vocals of Nicolas Barasch. His Orpheus bubbles over with a refreshing kind of naivite and optimism amidst the dystopian world where he lives. He immediately sings a song hoping to woo the much-skeptical Eurydice to the altar (“Wedding Song”) before singing to her in falsetto beauty of another unlikely love story – that of Persephone and Hades (“Epic I”).
His high notes catch the attention of a madly fanning Persephone in the hot underworld world of Hades (she, perched on a balcony reached by a winding, iron staircase like one might see on Bourbon Street). His song lures her back to earth as part of her annual trip to bring spring and summer to the mortals. Dressed in spring green with flowers braided in her hair, Kimberly Marable’s Persephone awakens the human world with a gritty, spell-bounding voice one might hear at 2 a.m. in a basement nightclub in New York or New Orleans.
Persephone has arrived from the underworld where she lives with her husband, Hades, during the dark and cold months of the year; and she is ready to rouse everyone to “Livin’ It Up On Top” now that her spring has come. An ensemble of five street folk who have been hanging around on the stage now come to full life dancing with moves big-legged, stomping, twisting, and arm-pumping (just one example of the evening’s continually impressive, hard-hitting choreography by David Neumann), rejoicing in “livin’ it up and we ain’t gonna stop.”
When she first meets Orpheus, Eurydice is not at all convinced in the truth of this poor poet’s promises of creating a song that can make her down-and-out life better. He dreamily spins in song the assurance of “The rivers are gonna give us the wedding bands.” As Eurydice, Morgan Siobhan Green responds in notes hard-hitting, somewhat raw, “Who’s gonna lay the wedding table, time’s being what they are, dark and getting darker?” (“Wedding Song”). But slowly, the magic of his vocals and the sincerity of his boyish ways win her over as her voice sweetens and softens and the two fall into each other’s arms, singing for the first time in duet a lovely, harmony of their love’s hopeful guarantee of “And it will always be like this” (“All I’ve Ever Known”).
But the god of the underworld, Hades – smartly dressed as a businessman all in black; draped in long, leather coat; and hidden behind dark glasses (Michael Krass, costume design) – has other ideas for Eurydice. When he comes to collect his bride, Persephone, in order to return her to Hades, the entire, red-lit stage bursts into a flurried hurricane of dance and song of “Way Down in Hades Town.” Hades takes notice of the younger Eurydice who joins in all the merriment. She in turn hangs onto the sassily sung words of a trio of temptresses, the Fates – performed with evil glee by Belén Moyano, Bex Odorisio, and Shea Renne – who sing of a Hades where “Everybody dresses in clothes so fine” … “sipping ambrosia wine.” That is enough to leave Eurydice totally vulnerable to a return visit by Hades as Kevyn Morrow’s profoundly deep and arresting bass voice sings “Hey, Little Songbird,” luring Eurydice to forget her struggling song-writer (who is now totally absorbed trying to create a new song) and to follow Hades to his underworld kingdom.
And now the tragedy so well-known by so many is set in full motion. Eurydice steps into the bright lights of an elevator to hell, leaving Orpheus behind. Suddenly without his bride-to-be, Orpheus wails desperately but beautifully in notes higher and stronger than ever, “Wait for me, I’m coming, too.”
Aided by the advice of Hermes, Orpheus heads to Hades on foot, setting up an Act Two in an underworld where empty-eyed miners work in a never-ending circle, punching fiercely into invisible walls of ore as they stomp forward without pause. The mastery and imagination of director Rachel Chavkin combined with her team of aforementioned choreographer and lighting designers creates an underworld strikingly eerie and harsh, accented by a deep and disturbing rumbling as part of Michael Krass’ sound design.
Into this world will arrive Orpheus where Nicolas Barasch with electric guitar in hand will stun us once again as he sings to Hades the story of the underworld king’s once wooing Persephone (“Epic III”). So incredible is the song and voice’s effect on the stern-and-steely-emotion Hades that he joins in a waltzing, dance of love with a Persephone he has too-long ignored. Orpheus’s continuous “la-la-la’s” sung with hypnotic powers lead to a decision by the underworld god to give Orpheus a way to free Eurydice from her now-regretted home in hell – but with a catch that allows the doubts of the siren-voiced Fates to set up the story’s tragic end (“Doubt Comes In”).
In the end, Hermes reminds us what he sang so pleasingly in the beginning, “It’s a sad song, but we sing it anyway.” There is still a bit of hope in his voice, matching the hope that many a theatregoer has each time we watch Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, or yes, the many staged versions of Virgil’s Orpheus and Eurydice – a hope as Hermes sings, “As if it might turn out this time.” It is that hope of “a love song, with a tale of love that never dies” that is the heart and soul of Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown. When stubborn hope that has endured for at least two millennia is matched with the playwright’s brilliant score and ever-smart lyrics that are presented by a star-studded cast of incredibly impressive voices and musicians, then of course this touring production of Hadestown at BroadwaySF’s Orpheum Theatre is nothing short of a must-see.
Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE
A Theatre-Eddy’s Best Bet production
Hadestown continues through July 3, 2022 in touring production at Broadway SF’s Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at https://broadwaysf.com/ , in person at the box office Tuesday – Sunday at varying hours (check the website above), or by calling 888-746-1799.
Photo Credits: T Charles Erikson