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Music, lyrics and book by Anaȉs Mitchell developed with Rachel Chavkin
Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London
Until 26th January 2019
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Following in the footsteps of Gluck and Offenbach this is another musical treatment of the classical myth of Orpheus, the poet-musician, who descends to the underworld to rescue his beloved Eurydice. Here it’s a sort of jive talkin’ oratorio.
Don’t know what ‘developed with’ means but if it means we’re not really sure who wrote the book then it sums up the key problem with the show, for you can’t just stick a concept album on stage, as they’ve done here, and call it a musical. Those songs are created with a different intention and they function in a different way, and without the scaffolding of a coherent book to sustain them on stage you end up with a series of musical highlights (no matter how polished) with nothing in between. None of the emotional highs therefore are earned with the result that you eventually lose engagement with it.
It is a pity because the songs possess beguiling melodies and are utterly exhilarating. The style is pure Americana, a cross between folk and New Orleans jazz which totally wins you over. Rachel Chavkin’s staging is full on and fuses the energy of the gospel church with that slick ease of Broadway and Rachel Hauck’s designs cleverly exploit the famous Olivier triple revolve to the full.
The show began as a concept album, was first staged at off Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop, and then further developed in Canada before ending up here for a limited run prior to Broadway. Being headed for the Great White Way the casting therefore gives us an opportunity to witness some charismatic visitors from New York.
Andre De Shields commands the stage as the wily Hermes, also the narrator of the piece. Eva Noblezada (last seen here in Miss Saigon) is vocally magnificent as Eurydice but Reeve Carney, while embodying the youthful rockstar (and never putting down his guitar) is a little underpowered for such a pivotal role as her lover. The standout though is the vocally imposing baritone Patrick Page as Hades. In his leather trench coat he’s the epitome of the evil silver fox, the plutocrat who runs Hadestown and entraps the wayward Eurydice. The devil, indeed, gets the best tunes.
The piece often strives for contemporary resonance and is shockingly prescient at times. The denizens of Hadestown have built a wall to protect their kingdom and they sing “The enemy is poverty/ and the wall keeps out the enemy/ and we build the wall to keep us free”. You don’t need to be Einstein to find some contemporary echoes there. Persephone (Amber Grey) emerges from the underworld to presage spring but finds seasonal chaos. Climate change perhaps? Hades too is conceived as a hell of industrialised slaves, who are artfully choreographed here by David Neumann.
The songs such as the foot stomping ‘Way Down Hadestown’ are exhilarating and the onstage band led by Nathaniel Cross on trombone are exquisite. Here The Fates are a sassy vocal trio who display some great instrumental playing also.