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Gloriously offbeat musical theatre staging of Anaïs Mitchell’s acclaimed concept album
Already lined up to transfer to Broadway in 2019, it would be pretty embarrassing for all involved if Rachel Chavkin’s musical theatre staging of Anaïs Mitchell’s massively acclaimed 2010 ‘folk opera’ album ‘Hadestown’ was received less than rapturously at the NT for what is, effectively, its warm-up for New York.
‘Hadestown’ is not perfect, but it is really, really good. The wonderfully diverse songs of Mitchell’s expanded, virtually sung-through soundtrack are the bedrock. From the demonic trombone riff that powers opener ‘Road to Hell’, through Hades’s stentorian authoritarian anthem ‘Why We Build the Wall’, to the graceful encore some two-and-a-half hours later, it is a musically thrilling, lyrically eccentric articulation of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth that has gratifyingly little to do with musical theatre convention.
As much as anything else, it works because of Chavkin’s exceptional casting. Amber Gray, a regular with Chavkin’s avant-garde theatre company The TEAM, is boozily magnificent as sozzled party-girl Persephone. André De Shields, the original Broadway Wiz in ‘The Wiz’, is scene-stealingly brilliant as a suavely shamanic Hermes. Eva Noblezada is a sweetly grungy Eurydice. Patrick Page’s bowel-quakingly low voice as Hades is practically a special effect.
The biggest problem with ‘Hadestown’ is that it feels like a staging of an album. It’s a brilliant staging of an album, but nonetheless, the characters and plot are wholly contained within the relatively impressionistic songs. And the central tragic romance of Orpheus and Eurydice doesn’t really work on an emotional level: Reeve Carney’s bland, toothy Orpheus is difficult to root for and occasionally unbearable when he starts singing. Not totally his fault. On a record (where Justin ‘Bon Iver’ Vernon sang the role!) it’s okay for a character to disappear for a few songs: here Orpheus is kept on stage, blithely composing his masterpiece while a starving Eurydice literally goes to hell while she waits for him to get on with it. It’s a difficult relationship to portray sympathetically, for sure, but Broadway star Carney (known for his titular turn in the troubled ‘Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’) feels so poorly cast compared to everyone else that it’s hard not to suspect that he’s a bit of red meat for punters who might be alarmed by the riotous gang of eccentrics Chavkin’s employed elsewhere.
If it does feel like a concert there are plenty more enjoyable bells and whistles piled on: Rachel Hauck’s New Orleans saloon-style set is a hoot; the tight crew of dancers putting David Neumann’s discreetly pneumatic choreography through its paces give everything a surging sense of perpetual motion. You don’t get the full works of a massive Broadway show, but ‘Hadestown’ is cooler than that, eschewing an orchestra for a jazzy bar band, or massed dancers in favour of a scrappy, punky indie cool that’s carried over straight from The TEAM.
A few bits and bobs don’t work, and it’s a shame Orpheus is one of them, but quibbling over such a joyously different musical feels pretty churlish. Just go along with it – and never look back.