Review: Hadestown Celebrates Human Love and Tragedy Against a Joyous Jazzy Musical Backdrop

Hadestown is a tragedy of human love and suffering and it will make you happy with its joyous, percussive music and slick dance performances. The musical production, based on the Orpheus and Eurydice story from Greek mythology, is on a national tour and running at Broadway in Chicago’s CIBC Theatre in the Loop through March 13.

This refreshingly original musical was developed by Anaïs Mitchell, who created book, music and lyrics, in partnership with Rachel Chavkin, who directs. David Neumann is choreographer with music direction by Liam Robinson.

The short version of the lovers’ tragedy (no spoilers for a 2000-year-old story) is that Orpheus, the son of Apollo, meets the beautiful wood nymph Eurydice; they fall in love and marry. Eurydice is bitten by a deadly viper (or suffers some other lethal accident) and dies, whereupon she goes to the Underworld or Hades. Orpheus, the musician and songwriter, follows her there and tries to persuade Hades, the lord of the Underworld, to let him take Eurydice back to the Upper World. Hades finally agrees, but only with the proviso that Orpheus must walk ahead of his wife and never look back until they reach the Upper World.

Levi Kreis, center, as Hermes. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Our guide on this tourists’ visit to the Netherworld is Hermes, the messenger of the gods and the protector of travelers. He’s played with brio by musician/actor Levi Kreis, who had the Tony-winning Broadway performance of Andre De Shields on which to model his character. There’s no need to compare them, because the performances are different; Kreis gives Hermes a winning personality and a dashing, athletically physical dance style. His rendition of “Road to Hell” opens the play to tell you that you’ve come to the right place for the music and sizzle that you’ve missed for two years.

The searching lover and husband, Orpheus, whose lyre is a guitar, is played by Nicholas Barasch; he falls in love with the sweet Eurydice (Morgan Siobhan Green) as soon as they meet. And his love is returned, as the two lovers realize they are meant to be together forever.

The other, older pair of lovers is an interesting parallel to the young couple. Hades, played with vigor and grand baritone vocals by Kevyn Morrow, is paired with Persephone, a vivacious Kimberly Marable. (Persephone is the goddess of the seasons and spends half the year in the Underworld with Hades, causing fall and winter above. Then she goes above to bring spring and summer. The playbill provides a brief guide on who’s who in Greek mythology; don’t miss it.)  Hades, who loved Persephone in their youth, has become so obsessed with controlling his empire that he’s forgotten how to be her lover.

Kevyn Morrow as Hades and Kimberly Marable as Persephone. Rear, Nicholas Barasch as Orpheus. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Rounding out the cast are the Fates, three female performers in black-and-white costumes and headgear: Belén Moyano, Bex Odorisio and Shea Renne. And of course, there’s a chorus, since we’re in Greekland. In Hadestown, it’s a five-member worker chorus, featuring Lindsey Hailes, Chibueze Ihuoma, Will Mann, Sydney Parra, and Jamari Johnson Williams.

The cast is uniformly strong, including every Fate and chorus member who are intrinsic parts of the story flow. A key disappointment is Barasch’s vocal performance, which lacks the power that the role requires. His young tenor voice pales on a stage with Levi Kreis (known for playing Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet) and Kevyn Morrow.

“Livin’ It Up on Top” is Persephone’s flashy act one song with Hermes, Orpheus and the company. In act two, she describes herself with “Our Lady of the Underground,” singing, “I  don’t know about you, boys / But if you’re like me then hanging around / This old manhole is bringing you down / Six-feet-under getting under your skin / Cabin fever is a-setting in….”

Eurydice and the Fates give a lively performance of “When the Chips Are Down.” But the keynote number is “Way Down Hadestown” performed by the company, with its introduction to Mr. Hades:

“Way down Hadestown / Way down under the ground / Hound dog howl and the whistle blow / Train come a-rollin, clickety-clack / Everybody tryin’ to get a ticket to go / Those who go they don’t come back…. / Mr. Hades is a mighty king / Must be making some mighty big deals / Seems like he owns everything / Kind of makes you wonder how it feels…. / Way down Hadestown / Way down under the ground / Way down Hadestown / Way down under the ground.”

The seven-piece on-stage orchestra plays the jazzy, bluesy score woven with folk and pop threads that the cast struts and jives to throughout the play. Cody Owen Stine is conductor and piano player; trombonist Audrey Ochoa gets in a few great solos.

The Orpheus and Eurydice story has been told and retold in many forms over the years, both with music and without. Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, which focuses on the woman’s side of the story, was staged last fall by the Artistic Home; it was one of the first live in-person shows post-pandemic. A couple of the outstanding film versions are Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950, the central part of Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy). Starring Jean Marais as Orpheus, the film is set in contemporary Paris. And Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus (1959), is set in Rio de Janeiro’s favela during the city’s world-famous carnival.

Hadestown is here for a shockingly brief run; you can see it through March 13 at the CIBC Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St. Tickets start at $52.50 for performances Tuesday-Sunday. Covid protocols are in place; you will need to show proof of vaccination to be admitted and wear a mask over nose and mouth while you are in the theater. For more information on this and other productions, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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