By C.B. Adams
“It’s an old tale from way back when.”
So states Hermes, the narrator of “Hadestown” at the beginning of this award-winning musical. Hermes is played by native St. Louisan Nathan Lee Graham (an audience fave) who delivers a highly entertaining pastiche that’s Part Zazu, part Ben Vereen, part Joel Grey and part master of ceremony.
“Hadestown,” now playing at the Fox Theater, is indeed an old tale. It’s a dystopian folk opera reboot of a Greek myth, circa 800-900 BCE, by Anais Mitchell (music, book and lyrics), and it’s still potently relevant today, prescient even.
If the idea of attending a modernized Greek tragedy, replete with gods, Fates and Chorus doesn’t entice you, maybe the fact it won eight Tony Awards in 2019, the most awarded show of that season, including Best Musical, will. There’s strength and staying power to the old tales, and this touring company’s production of the travails of Orpheus and Eurydice provides a superlative experience, proving it’s a different kind of marvel universe.
And, no, you don’t need to bone up on your Greek mythology before attending. Hermes, in word and song, guides you through the story.
This appraisal of the opening night’s performance at the tightly packed Fox on opening night joins the swelling ranks of this show’s ongoing rave reviews – both the original Broadway and this touring production. It would be easy to state that “Hadestown” checks all the boxes for an excellent show and leave it at that. But if you’re on the bubble about attending, perhaps some additional convincing is in order.
For starters, the score with 31 songs and a reprise is mesmerizing. The songs, whose source was an award-winning 2010 concept album by Mitchell, are tightly paced and intricately braided into the narrative. They have a timelessness about them, blending blues, gospel, ragtime, jazz, folk, and even indie-pop influences. The songs have a definite old-timey vibe with contemporary touches, such as when Persephone uses the phrase “pay per view.” Everyone’s taste differs, but my top-three favorite songs were “Road to Hell,” “Wait for Me,” and “Way Down Hadestown.”
The sound mixing was well-balanced, and vocals were clear and understandable. This is noteworthy because, based on some other recent shows (not necessarily at the Fox), it’s amazing how important good sound is, especially when you’re straining to understand the vocals. Hannah Whitley as Eurydice was a bit too quiet during “Livin’ It Up On Top,” but rallied for the rest of the show with strong vocals and emotion.
The set, designed by Rachel Hauck, was perfectly scaled for the Fox’s stage. The set cleverly serves as the entrance to the underworld (Hadestown) and the underworld itself. In the center of the two-story set is a lighted, doorway that opens its maw to swallow or belch forth the actors. The set’s umber- and sepia-tinged palette resonates with the show’s folky, jazz- and creole-influenced music with a blend of French Quarter, 1930s train station and Paris brasserie.
Great theater is all in the details, and one of the best small touches in “Hadestown” was the how various characters interacted with the steampunkish, double-headed microphone. Another terrific touch was flanking the set with members of the seven-piece band on either side (though the percussionist/drummer was offstage). Special note must be made of the performance of Emily Frederickson, who played trombone and glockenspiel (More glockenspiel!) and even danced in a number.
The set was further enhanced with Tony-winning lighting design from Bradley King that could be as subtle as it was garish, as when the lights blasted into the audience. Costume design by Michael Krass complemented and mirrored the tarnished atmosphere of Hadestown. The one exception was the silver-spangled vest of Hermes, which he proudly flashed at the opening of the show.
Unlike the devil in other traditions, Hades in both myth and this musical is not a one-dimensional antagonist. Hades has a backstory and earns a begrudging level of respect in his role as leader of the underworld. As voiced and sung by baritone Matthew Patrick Quinn, the stentorian Hades sounded as deep and dark as a coal mine and as ominous as an earthquake.
As played by Chibueze Ihuoma, Orpheus begins as a naïve, somewhat clueless musical prodigy. As his fate becomes intertwined with Eurydice’s, Ihuoma adeptly portrayed Orpheus’ transformation into a mythically tragic figure. Ihuoma has been with the touring company since 2021 and began as a member of the ensemble as a Worker before assuming the Orpheus role in June.
This imagining of the Greek tale elevates the female characters. Eurydice here is independent, resilient and self-aware. As Eurydice, Hannah Whitley beautifully voices these characteristics and, like Ihuoma, effectively portrays her character’s inevitable, unstoppable fate.
The upstairs-downstairs character Persephone is onstage for most of the show, and understudy Shea Renne made the most of that opportunity. Whether she’s stomping around during her signature song, “Livin’ It Up On Top,” or idly sitting on the balcony with her husband, Hades, Renne brought vigor and misery in equal measures to her portrayal.
Also strong is the show’s ensemble of actors, dancers and singers in the Fates and Chorus. This ensemble is as vibrant and compelling as the rest of the cast. The Fates in particular were fun to watch as the interacted individually and as a unit with the other characters throughout the performance.
One of the reasons why some stories endure while others don’t is their adaptability. An ancient Greek would certainly recognize the essence of the Orpheus-Eurydice tale retold in “Hadestown.” Modern audiences can certainly appreciate the Greek tragedy for its ability to affirm life even in the face of suffering. And, for those who miss this opportunity to see “Hadestown,” it would be…well, hell.
Performances of “Hadestown” at the Fabulous Fox run Oct. 11-23. Show times are Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Saturday afternoons at 2 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 1 p.m. Tickets on sale now at MetroTix.com or by calling 314-534-1111. For more information, visit www.fabulousfox.com
CB Adams is an award-winning fiction writer and photographer based in the Greater St. Louis area. A former music/arts editor and feature writer for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, his non-fiction has been published in local, regional and national publications. His literary short stories have been published in more than a dozen literary journals and his fine art photography has been exhibited in more than 40 galley shows nationwide. Adams is the recipient of the Missouri Arts Council’s highest writing awards: the Writers’ Biennial and Missouri Writing!. The Riverfront Times named him, “St. Louis’ Most Under-Appreciated Writer” in 1996.