Above ground, everything's cookin' in "Hadestown." Photo by T. Charles Erickson
“Hadestown” is downtown. The touring production of Anais Mitchell’s mythological musical, now playing at the Civic Theatre, looks and feels like the big Broadway show it is: lavish sets, transcendent lighting, evocative costumes, an infectious orchestra right on stage rather than sequestered in the pit. In short, everything to dazzle the theatergoer.
Mitchell’s adaptation of the Greek myth about Orpheus and Eurydice took its time getting to the Great White Way in 2019 – 13 years after it began as a project musical touring New England, with a concept album recording in between. Once it hit Broadway it was a smash, eventually winning eight Tonys including Best Musical.
From a production standpoint, it’s easy to see why. The scenic design by Rachel Hauck (a Tony winner), evoking both a French Quarter club at its festive best and the unrelenting depths of Hades’ grim realm, makes for immersive storytelling. The costume design by Michael Krass also suits both worlds to a tee. David Neumann’s choreography, especially in the Hades sequences, functions beautifully with the music, which incorporates everything from jazz to choral pop to worldbeat.
Beneath the aforementioned dazzle are a few narrative missteps. This is an ultra-expository show, with the god Hermes omnipresently telling us what’s going on and what it means throughout when we don’t need to be told and explained to. “Hadestown” also finds its romantic twosome, Orpheus and Eurydice, not nearly as charismatic or engrossing as the two peripheral figures in the story: Hades, ruler of the Underworld, and Persephone, his abducted queen. Little wonder that Kevyn Morrow and Kimberly Marable on this national tour rule like gods when they’re onstage.
Other than the ending, this is a loose adaptation of the Greek myth, though if you research long enough you’ll find multiple twists, turns and interpretations. It’s best to enjoy “Hadestown” as a myth rather than scouring it for contemporary messaging and relevance. Yeah, the “Why We Build the Wall” anthem that closes Act 1 could be singled out for currency, but Mitchell wrote the song before the cruel and paranoid MAGA years in the White House. As for the notion that the power of music can overcome even the worst oppression and oppressors, that’s a timeless, if sadly naïve, trope.
In “Hadestown,” Orpheus (J. Antonio Rodriguez, an understudy, in the role on Thursday night) is struggling to finish that one quintessential song of overpowering love as he woos the poor, hungry but smitten Eurydice (Morgan Siobhan Green). While Mitchell’s massive score includes some memorable tunes spanning multiple genres (“Road to Hell,” “Way Down Hadestown,” “Come Home With Me,” “Livin’ It Up On Top”), THE SONG Orpheus ultimately finishes is one rife with “la la la” lyrical passages. Sorry, it’s a letdown.
For a lengthy show, “Hadestown’s” dramatic tension is really confined to one premise: Hades has overpowered the starving Eurydice into a deal that keeps her his captive down below and Orpheus is dead-set on rescuing her. Period. It’s the extravagant staging and wonderful live music that matter most. Shout-out to the “Hadestown” musicians, by the by, especially trombonist Audrey Ochoa.
If you’re most captivated, among the cast members, by Marable’s Persephone, you’re not alone. Her Act 2-opening “Our Lady of the Underground,” is a delight. Morrow boasts a basso six feet deep as Hades, and the swagger as well. Between the young sweethearts, Rodriguez has the lovelier voice, though his delivery can sound overwrought.
As narrator/explainer Hermes, Eddie Noel Rodriguez is nattily dressed, unflappable and charming. It’s his job to put a grace note on the myth’s – SPOILER ALERT! – tragic conclusion.
He’s up to the task.
“Hadestown” runs through June 5 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.