“Why do we build the wall, my children?” asked folksinger Greg Brown, playing the character Hades, on the 2010 recording of Anaïs Mitchell’s “folk opera,” Hadestown.
“We build the wall to keep us free!” answers the chorus, over ghostly pedal steel.
“Who do we call the enemy, my children?” he continued.
“The enemy is poverty, and the wall keeps out the enemy, and we build the wall to keep us free!” his subjects respond, circular logic building in concatenate phrases until it reaches the rub: “We have work and they have none, and our work is never done… and the war is never won.”
This chilling scene remains the centerpiece of Hadestown, a love story and class-struggle parable based on the Orpheus myth that arrives on the same Broadway stage Bruce Springsteen worked for 14 months prior. The cast has changed from Mitchell’s original LP (where Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, the Low Anthem’s Ben Knox Miller and activist folk hero Ani DiFranco joined Mitchell and Brown in the leads). But the work’s musical integrity and proletariat spirit remains largely intact.
In a sense, Hadestown’s journey to the money-driven Great White Way mirrors the hero’s journey to the Underworld. Conceived by Mitchell as a DIY community theater production in her home state (she toured it around Vermont in a Magical Mystery Tour-style bus), it became an LP on Ani DiFranco’s stalwart indie label, Righteous Babe, then an Off-Broadway success story at the New York Theater Workshop (where David Bowie worked on Lazarus). Hadestown was shaped further during runs in Canada and London before setting up shop in the Walter Kerr Theater. Yes, it’s lost some intimacy from its Off-Broadway run, and gained some more conventional expository show tunes, which lard the opening section perilously.
But with the entrance of Persephone — played with boozy authority by Amber Gray, rewinding her Off-Broadway role — things gain steam quickly. Reeve Carny’s Orpheus, in a nice echo of the theater’s previous tenant, is a working-class savior with an acoustic guitar, writing a song that might change the world. It changes his world, at least temporarily, and he sells it pretty convincingly, in a falsetto-tinged high tenor that’s more Freddie Mercury than Bono, who he effectively proxy-ed in Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark. (One of the new songs is tellingly called “Any Way the Wind Blows.”)
The whole cast is on point. Patrick Page reprises his low-baritone Hades, a wicked ruler with a microscopic but still-existent heart (and a brick-patterned wall tattoo on his forearm that may become a fashion trend for the MAGA set). Eva Noblezada is a fetching, potent Eurydice, a poor girl who sells out to become a cog in Hadestown before Orpheus attempts to liberate her. The Fates (Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, Kay Trinidad) are a perfect balance of sassy, sexy, and menacing, who sing their asses off when they get an opening. And André De Shields is a vivid Hermes, a wizened seer who brings to the narrator role a touch of carnival barker and New Orleans hoodoo swagger.
That’s fitting for the music, rooted as much in hot jazz as folk ballads, which generates thrilling momentum with the sort of free-range musicality you rarely hear in Broadway shows. Credit longtime Ani DiFranco wingman Todd Sickafoose, producer/shaper of the 2010 LP, who provides arrangements and orchestrations, and the on-stage band, notably mobile trombonist Brian Drye, who brings some Mardi Gras parade energy, and drummer Ben Perowsky, a New York fixture whose resume runs from Rickie Lee Jones to John Zorn, and who detonates some slyly abstract second-line grooves.
Credit also director Rachel Chavkin, whose cursed but magnificent Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 showed a similarly out-of-the-box attitude towards music. The staging here, as with that show, pushes the boundaries of the proscenium theater, if less spectacularly; it’s also far less immersive than her in-the-round staging for the New York Theater Workshop Hadestown. But she does a lot with the space limitations; the mid-show set-change got as lusty a cheer from the crowd as any other part of the show.
If you know the Orpheus myth, you know how this story plays out, and Mitchell stays fairly true to it. A standard feel-good ending wouldn’t square with the class-struggle theme, but the twist at the end is a nice Shakespearean affirmation of art’s transformative power. No doubt mounting a work like this on Broadway scale is a fraught prospect; when the production was announced last year, pull-quotes were like, “it is expected to be capitalized for $11.5 million, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.” Whatever devil’s bargains were made, it’s good to see Hadestown has kept its soul in the process.