Possibly the best new musical since Hamilton, the Tony Award-winning sensation Hadestown has returned to Chicago for what is, sadly, a very brief engagement. Do yourself a huge favor: if it is at all possible to see it, do so. This stunning show, written by Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, may cover familiar territory—the Orpheus and Eurydice myth—but Mitchell has re-imagined it as a powerful, poignant, sometimes very funny, and always moving musical that simultaneously tells the story (her version, anyway) of the marriage of Hades and Persephone.
Quick recap for the unfamiliar: Persephone, goddess of the seasons, is married to Hades, god of the underworld. By arrangement with her mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, she spends half of each year with him and half on Earth. Demeter refuses to bless the Earth for the six months she is with her husband, thus giving us the four seasons. Orpheus and Eurydice, star-crossed lovers, are not traditionally connected to that story. He is the son of a muse whose music and singing contains powerful charms. She is a nymph he falls in love with, but who dies on their wedding day after being bitten by a snake. He travels to the underworld to bring her back, only to fail the test Hades gives him and lose her forever.
Since we know from the outset that this ends sadly, even “tragically” as our guide, the god Hermes, says, why do we tell this tale? Why see this play? Hermes (and of course Mitchell) thinks it is a testament to the human capacity for hope; we hope that, against all odds, it might end differently this time. But Mitchell is a gifted songwriter and intelligent enough not to leave a thing like that to chance. In her conflation of the two stories, she focuses on the trials of being in love and the possibility that love can change the world. Here, Orpheus (played with farm boy innocence and the voice of an angel by Nicholas Barasch) is trying to write a song that will appease Hades and release the Earth from winter’s clutch. Meanwhile, Eurydice (also an innocent but far more world-wary, as played by Morgan Siobhan Green) is merely trying to find her way to her next meal, and—in a critical departure from the traditional myth—it is her desperate hunger that drives her to trade her soul to Hades. Of course, she has no idea what she is getting herself into, and when Hermes finds out, he decides to descend into the underworld to bring her back. Barasch’s plaintive “Wait For Me” is one of the highlights of the whole show.
Hades, in his anger over missing his wife half of every year, has rebuilt the underworld into a vast, machine-like factory/mine. His “children” are put to work building walls to protect their subterranean world from (nonexistent) threats posed by those who allegedly want to destroy them. As the jealous megalomaniac god, Kevin Morrow puts his own stamp on a character originally played on Broadway in a gravelly basso profundo by Patrick Page. Morrow, who shows at one point that he does indeed have the ability to dig deep down for that Page-like growl, has a more moderated voice that actually makes it easier to believe that he had the ability to make the sun-touched Persephone, performed by Kimberly Marable with a playful touch of spring joy—tinged with the darkness of Hades’ caverns—fall in love with him. Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin give this volatile relationship even more focus than that of the younger lovers, but only because it is far more complex.
Anchoring all of this is the exciting performance of Levi Kreis as Hermes, who has long been a friend of Orpheus; he even taught him to play the lyre, though this play has an electric guitar serving as a stand-in. The lithe, amiable Kreis acts as the story’s narrator, the all-knowing (literal) god who takes us down this road. It is Kreis who opens the play with the upbeat “Road to Hell,” in which the setting and characters are introduced, and his omnipresence connects all of the pieces of the story throughout. His open sadness at the end—he seems to be nearly crying—reflects the audience’s emotional experience.
Deep in the bowels of the Earth, in the hell-factory called “Hadestown,” a small but talented ensemble represent the millions of souls stuck for eternity doing what the boss god desires and subject to his vicious moods (as well as to the robot-like movements created by choreographer David Neumann). Hades has convinced himself that, by keeping them free from want and need, even in this dictatorial way, he has done them a huge favor, though it is clear to any unbiased observer that by removing their individuality he has essentially made them into mere cogs in the machine of his vast underground “electric city.” It is Persephone who calls him on his crap by noting the oddity of so much blinding light and scorching heat “way down under the ground,” saying that “it ain’t right, and it ain’t natural.” But he’s too proud of what he’s built—and angry with her—to listen.
Anyone who has ever seen Disney’s “Hercules” knows the other principal denizens of the underworld, the Fates. These all-knowing goddesses are constantly watching and manipulating lives both above and below the ground. Here, played by the animated trio of Belén Moyano, Bex Odorisio, and Shea Renne, the Fates are simply amusing themselves, inserting their two cents whenever they feel the desire, as in the wonderful “When the Chips Are Down.” In their constant interfering with the humans (and their souls), they are almost more frightening than Hades, who at least is generally aloof. Moyano, Odorisio, and Renne have as much fun with their characters as Marable does with hers, and the four of them make for much of the play’s humor as they prove beyond a doubt that scary can be fun.
A lively, talented group of musicians led by conductor Cody Owen Stine (and featuring frequent flourishes from Audrey Ochoa’s trombone) is situated directly on Rachel Hauck’s massive but surprising set, which is beautifully lit by Bradley King. A shoutout is due also to costume designer Michael Krass for all of his inventive work here…but especially for the detailed workers’ uniforms worn by the souls in Hadestown as they build their wall.
Despite the sadness of its central story, Hadestown strives to be uplifting and positive. After all, Hermes says, we humans do keep trying again and again to get things right, and maybe…just maybe…Orpheus and Euridyce may end up happy at some point.
Hadestown is playing at the CIBC Theatre on Monroe St. through March 13. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster.